There is no question that a kind of restoration of the Horthy regime is under way in Hungary. That regime (1919-1945) considered itself “counterrevolutionary, Christian, and national”; Viktor Orbán made it eminently clear that his own regime, the result of a revolution in the voting booths, is “right-wing, Christian, and national.” And when this regime wants to wipe out Hungarian history between March 19, 1944 and October 23, 1989, one cannot be terribly surprised that nostalgia for the “good old days” is growing. This is especially strange from people whose ancestors didn’t exactly prosper in those days. For example, Viktor Orbán’s grandfather was so poor that he couldn’t afford a train ticket to Budapest when as an unemployed youngster he was seeking employment in the capital. He walked. László Kövér’s grandfather and great grandfathers as old social democrats had a very hard time in Horthy’s Hungary.
We have already talked about the renaming of streets, the ball organized to raise funds for a Horthy statue, and the hideous life-size wooden Horthy statue erected in a small village. Lately a marble plaque from the Hungarian Reformed Gymnasium of Debrecen, which was removed in 1947, has now been returned to its original place. Because Miklós Horthy attended a naval academy in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy, he spent only two years at the gymnasium when he was 11 and 12.
I told the story of Gyömrő’s decision to change the name of the main square from Szabadság (Freedom) to Horthy. Because of the upheaval the city council decided to ask a historian, the highly regarded Ignác Romsics, to give a lecture for all those citizens of Gyömrő who were eager to learn something about the former governor of the Kingdom of Hungary. If the city fathers were hoping to get ammunition for their decision from Romsics, they had to be disappointed. Romsics painted a balanced picture of Horthy, including all the warts. The upshot of his talk was that viewing Horthy as a historical figure to be admired and revered is a mistake.
Given the growing Horthy cult it is not surprising that a biography of Horthy appeared written by Dávid Turbucz, a young Ph.D. candidate who had earlier written a number of articles dealing with Horthy. At least two of them are available on the Internet. One about the Horthy cult in the late 1920s and another on the media hype on the twentieth anniversary of his governorship.
In addition, I happen to have another article by Turbucz (“A Horthy-kultusz kezdetei”) in the 2009/4 issue of Múltunk. I found this article especially interesting because it deals with the Miklós Horthy of the 1919-1921 period. It describes the techniques by which Horthy’s closest supporters burnished Horthy’s image and thus laid the groundwork for the later full-blown Horthy cult.
Some right-wing journalists and politicians look upon Turbucz’s book as a revision of the Horthy portrait that was completely distorted by Marxist historians. But only people unfamiliar with Hungarian historiography would believe that assessment because by the early 1980s a fairly balanced portrait emerged. Turbucz’s professors and mentors were Ignác Romsics and Péter Sipos, both active prior to 1989.
Naturally, one can always find new details about Horthy’s role in the history of Hungary’s interwar period, but there is agreement on the overall assessment of the man. He started off as a right radical who agreed with the hot-heads around him and who shielded the murderers of approximately 1,000 people after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Not even his supporters tried to deny his responsibility in the white terror; they only attempted to minimize it. Although no one ever found an order written by Horthy to the counterrevolutionaries sweeping across Transdanubia, there is plenty of evidence that he knew about their activities. According to Pál Prónay, one of the terrorists, he even encouraged them.
But then after he became governor, especially after 1922, under the influence of the conservative István Bethlen, he abandoned his old friends. However, one has the suspicion after reading a few books and articles on the subject, including Turbucz’s, that his heart remained with the radicals. His anti-communist sentiments were so strong that he could completely lose his head and act against the interests of the country. When the news came from the military leaders that Soviet planes had attacked Kassa/Košice, it never occurred to him that “it was not in the Soviet Union’s interest to attack a Hungarian city.” He didn’t even discuss the matter with László Bárdossy, the prime minister. According to Bárdossy, he told Horthy about Molotov’s letter in which he even promised support of certain revisionist claims if Hungary didn’t join the German forces, but it didn’t impress Horthy. Most likely he didn’t believe promises made by communists.
Horthy’s role in Hungary’s entrance into the war without German request or pressure was one of the great mistakes of the final years of his governorship. The other was that he remained in office after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. On March 15, Horthy received an invitation from Hitler for a meeting in Kleissheim. Prime Minister Miklós Kállay didn’t want him to go, but the military so close to his heart advised him otherwise. First, he resisted Hitler’s demands but eventually he gave in to all of the Führer’s wishes, including his staying in office. He explained that he “cannot resign because he took an oath that he would not abandon his country in its difficult times. He is still a mariner who doesn’t leave the sinking ship.” Turbucz adds that the personality of Horthy didn’t get deformed as much as those of Hitler or Stalin, but the cult of personality left its mark on him.
By remaining in office he witnessed the deportation of about 600,000 Hungarian Jews and stopped the deportations only on July 6. By that time the Allies had landed in Normandy and the Russian troops were fairly close to the Hungarian borders. His later attempt to leave the German allies was a fiasco. It was poorly prepared and his beloved soldiers abandoned him.
Horthy and his family were taken to Germany where they were housed in an elegant baroque castle, albeit surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Eventually he was arrested by the Americans where he was interrogated by Andor Sziklay (A. C. Klay), a Hungarian working for the American secret service. In 1993 the notes of these conversations were published in Hungarian and they are telling. First and foremost, he was incapable of self-criticism and blamed everybody else. He kept repeating that events couldn’t have unfolded in any other way. He idealized the history of Hungary prior to 1918 and blamed Trianon for absolutely everything that happened afterward. He kept writing letters to Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Ernest Bevin and whomever he could think of in which he acted as if he were still the governor of Hungary. In one of these letters he even went so far as to claim that he did “everything in his power to save the country from the horrors of war.” Quite a bit of exaggeration, adds Turbucz.
Turbucz, echoing many other historians, is certain that it was Stalin who saved Horthy from ending up a war criminal. Mátyás Rákosi, secretary of the Hungarian Communist party, agreed with Stalin. They didn’t want to make a martyr out of him. As a result, he had to appear only as a witness at Nuremberg. During the questioning Horthy often claimed memory lapses, especially when it came to the so-called “Jewish laws” and an early 1941 deportation of about 15,000 Jews.
Finally, Turbucz spends a few pages on the anti-Horthy cult that took hold after 1945. In the 1950s the Horthy regime was described as fascist and Horthy as a dictator. Of course, this wasn’t the case, but the Horthy regime remains a system Viktor Orbán wants to establish in Hungary: a quasi-democracy where one party with overwhelming representation in parliament and without much interference from a very weak opposition runs the show. No wonder that Orbán feels a certain affinity to the regime and the man after whom it is named.