From Trianon to the Don River: Historical revisionism?

Csaba Hende, minister of defense, has been striving to reinvigorate (and laud) the Hungarian military tradition, and that unfortunately has led to a glorification of the Hungarian military between the two world wars as well. The Hungarian right in general rejects the standard academic view that Hungary’s political elite, because of its revisionist aims, committed the country to the German war effort and thus dragged it into a hopeless war against the Soviet Union and the Allies.

Until now those historians who were less critical of Hungarian foreign policy were usually content to point out the very difficult situation in which the country found itself. It was inevitable, they argued, that sooner or later Germany would occupy the country. The policies the Hungarian governments pursued managed to postpone an early occupation that would have had grave consequences, especially for the Hungarian Jewish population.  But now, it seems, some Hungarian politicians and historians are going further: they practically declare that Hungary’s pro-German orientation was logical and justified.

What prompted the articulation of these extremist views was the Ministry of Defense’s decision to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic fate of the Second Hungarian Army near Voronezh, where the Don River takes an abrupt turn eastward.

In January 1942 the Germans demanded more troops from their Hungarian and Italian allies because the Soviet troops had pushed their armies back about 200 kilometers during the last months of 1941. The Hungarian government obliged and created a separate unit called the Second Army, drawing soldiers from all over the country. Their numbers reached about 200,000. Ten percent of them were unarmed Jews serving in labor battalions. The troops left the country on April 13, 1943.

The Orbán government’s commemoration of the Second Army began already on that day in 2012 when Csaba Hende and others visited the Hungarian Central Military Cemetery in Rudkino, near Voronezh, where the minister delivered a eulogy during the reburial of the fallen soldiers. This military cemetery, by the way, was erected between 1999 and 2002, that is, during the first Orbán government. One can read more about it here.

Just as in all other matters connected to Hungarian history, there is no consensus about the destruction of the Second Hungarian Army. Until recently the mainstream historical assessment of the event was that the Hungarians were simply not ready for the task because they were sent to Russia with inadequate supplies, clothing, and arms. The commander of the Army, Gusztáv Jány, torn between unquestioning obedience and his worries about the troops, became paralyzed and ordered withdrawal too late. By that time the Hungarian troops were almost encircled by the Soviets. The troops eventually fled in disarray, at which point Jány unequivocally condemned his soldiers. A few days later he withdrew his statement. Shortly after the calamity he resigned from the army. After the war he was executed, but the Military Tribunal of the Supreme Court rehabilitated him in 1993.

In Hungary the soldiers and their commander are pictured as innocent victims of German pressure. The fact remains, however, that they treated the local population very harshly. According to historian Krisztián Ungváry, during the occupation of the Soviet Union the Hungarians were second only to the Germans in civilian executions. The Hungarian troops also burned more than 1,000 villages in search of partisans.

According to  Sándor Szakály, a military historian, of the 200,000 Hungarians  at Voronezh, 42,000 were killed, 26,000 became prisoners of war, and 28,000 were wounded.  It is therefore surprising to hear him declare that it is a mistake to talk about the destruction of the Second Army. Well, I guess total destruction would have meant the death or capture of all 200,000, but I consider losing half the troops devastating enough. Other estimates talk about higher numbers. Szabolcs Szita, a historian of the Holocaust, at the same conference mentioned  235,000 officers and soldiers and 39,000 men serving in the labor battalions, most of whom were Jewish.

Despite all the accounts of the inadequate clothing and weaponry of the troops, Pál Fodor, who is the head of the Center for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy, claims that “the soldiers serving at the front received everything that the country could have given them.” Let me add parenthetically that Pál Fodor is a historian who studies the minorities of the Ottoman Empire. When he became an expert on the military history of World War II I have no idea.

In any case, there is just too much evidence that the soldiers suffered terribly because of the cold. The boots they got were not high enough, so during the summer they were filled with sand and during the winter with rain and snow. There were problems with the food supply; what they received from the Germans was both poor and insufficient.   I think that the following picture gives a fair idea about the state of affairs. I might add that the Second Army also had a unit of soldiers equipped with bicycles.

Don-kanyar

Szakály and Fodor agree: the Second Army “received everything they could have gotten.” This is naturally a meaningless statement. Whatever that “everything” was, it wasn’t enough. In addition, some sources reveal that neither the ordinary soldiers nor the officers were exactly eager to fight because they didn’t feel that war in the middle of the Ukraine was their own.

And here we come to the real dividing line between the differing interpretations of Hungary’s role in World War II. Csaba Hende in his eulogy talked about the soldiers “who carried out the duty that the fatherland demanded of them. In fact, they did more: everything that was possible.” The war was in defense of Hungary. Historians not committed to the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime see it differently. It was a war the Hungarian government willingly entered, mostly because of Miklós Horthy’s fierce anti-communism, and the consequences were tragic for the country and its people.

Perhaps the most outrageous statement came from Pál Fodor: the rectification of the Trianon borders could have been achieved only with the assistance of Germany and Italy. Therefore, the Hungarian political leadership couldn’t afford to refuse participation on the side of Germany in the war against the Soviet Union.

76 comments

  1. The UN Security Council has five veto wielding permanent members – China, France, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States – the five great powers that were the victors of Second World War and defeted the Axis powers.

    Now the Viktor Orban moronic right wing government practically declares that Hungary is still an Axis state. The only one left.

    Unbelievable.

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  2. The number of Jewish forced laborers (muszos) was between 40 and 50 thousand, i.e. more than 20% of the 2nd Army, not 10% as one of the speakers announced the other day and above you repeated as well.

    Horthy mentioned to Hitler in 1943 that he had lost 36 thousand Jews at the Don.
    See the German documents in “Wilhelmstrasse es Magyarorszag” (I will check the volume tomorrow for the exact quote).

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  3. I would say, that Hungarians make awful soldiers if not defending our own land. The only battles Hunyadi lost were far away from Hungary. This is exactly what happened at the Don River. The Honvédség is only for defending the haza.

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  4. Anyway, I see nothing wrong with commemorating the lost Hungarian soldiers. These men were not “evil nazis”, but ordinary men, our grandfathers, fathers.

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  5. Orban’s defense in a future courtroom:

    Your Honor, I plead not Nazi, I just wanted to steal as much of the taxpayers’ money as possible and rebuild a medieval hierarchical society, so I succumbed to whims of some crackpot Nazi ideologues.

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  6. The delusional Hungarian Jobbik-like ideologs have exceeded even the classical World War II German Nazis. After having been destroyed from the west and from the east, at least the surviving Germans acknowledged that their society had made grave “mistakes.” Yes, of course, Adolf Hitler can be credited with building the autobahn. However, his Aryan fantasies translated into mass murder still gnaw at German society. Not so the delusional Hungarian Jobbik-like ideologs who will not rest until they have dragged Hungary into the garbage pit of history. T’is a pity, because Hungary once held so much promise.

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  7. Lecso :
    Anyway, I see nothing wrong with commemorating the lost Hungarian soldiers. These men were not “evil nazis”, but ordinary men, our grandfathers, fathers.

    Think again.
    Everything Orban does has a hidden, devious agenda.
    This ‘heroic’ soldier thing is to convince ‘Magyars’ that Orban’s interpretation is right regardless of the ‘communist’ machinations of the west.
    ‘Hey, if it feels good, it must be right!’.

    Hungary is a sick nation fed intravenously with pomp and nationalism by the mad-happy doctor.

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  8. It is certain that the wish to reverse Versailles and Trianon were driving factors for Germany and Hungary to go to war. But for Germany the war was already lost – on paper – after Stalingrad. Basically, wars are lost on paper (manpower, tanks, planes, supply lines, fuel – these are all things you can figure out on a piece of paper). BTW, the Germans were also underequipped and underfed. Strangely, the Germans decided on the “final solution” of the Jews (Wannsee Conference of January 1942) almost at the same time when they began the battle of Stalingrad that lost them the war. It’s almost ironic.

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  9. Frederick Süss :
    The delusional Hungarian Jobbik-like ideologs have exceeded even the classical World War II German Nazis. After having been destroyed from the west and from the east, at least the surviving Germans acknowledged that their society had made grave “mistakes.” Yes, of course, Adolf Hitler can be credited with building the autobahn. However, his Aryan fantasies translated into mass murder still gnaw at German society. Not so the delusional Hungarian Jobbik-like ideologs who will not rest until they have dragged Hungary into the garbage pit of history. T’is a pity, because Hungary once held so much promise.

    The plans for the Autobahn were made during the Weimar republic. With Hitler came the rage about the Autobahn and the Volkswagen, architectural gigantism, pr-boasts about achievments in technological and military hardware.
    Orbán cannot offer any of these things so he is stealing Jobbik’s “ideas”, propagating the Turul myth etc.
    A farewell to populism and to irresponsible election promises is indispensable. Only by making a clean slate in this respect there is a chance for a new beginning and a return to the club of the prospering post-transition Central European countries Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
    This is not Orbán’s policy. So instead of more bread and butter Hungarians will get more speeches about Turul, about Great Hungary and the good time of Miklós Horthy, Trianon and of course the crazy idea of a (Jewish) world conspiracy against Hungary.

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  10. Minusio :
    the battle of Stalingrad that lost them the war

    The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the course of the war but that doesn’t mean the war was already lost for the Germans when their Sixth Army surrendered. You may not be aware but the Germans were experimenting with nuclear weapons. When they were talking about the ‘Wunderwaffen,’ what they meant was not simply the V1 “winged bomb” and the V2 mid-range ballistic missile – which, in and of themselves, were blissfully inadequate in reversing the course of events – but their nuclear versions which, thankfully, never materialised. But it’s easy to imagine what it would have meant for the outcome of the war if the Germans destroyed London and turned Britain into nuclear wasteland… We can be thankful that their nuclear war efforts were fruitless – but that had nothing to do with Stalingrad.

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    1. @ Tyrker. If, if, if. The Germans didn’t even have a functioning nuclear reactor and nowhere the means for a Manhattan project. You are talking nonsense.

      The war was no longer winnable for nazi Germany after Stalingrad, but actually it was lost even earlier: on December 11, 1941 when Germany declared war against the US of A. It took another three years and five months to end it. For everybody who could calculate and didn’t believe in propaganda (like the officers of the German general staffs) the war was lost less than two and a half years after Hitler had raided Poland.

      Believe me.

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  11. Tyrker :

    Minusio :
    the battle of Stalingrad that lost them the war

    The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the course of the war but that doesn’t mean the war was already lost for the Germans when their Sixth Army surrendered. You may not be aware but the Germans were experimenting with nuclear weapons. When they were talking about the ‘Wunderwaffen,’ what they meant was not simply the V1 “winged bomb” and the V2 mid-range ballistic missile – which, in and of themselves, were blissfully inadequate in reversing the course of events – but their nuclear versions which, thankfully, never materialised. But it’s easy to imagine what it would have meant for the outcome of the war if the Germans destroyed London and turned Britain into nuclear wasteland… We can be thankful that their nuclear war efforts were fruitless – but that had nothing to do with Stalingrad.

    Please do not forget the Battle of El Alamein during more or less the same period. It seems that Hitler started too many Battles at once.

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  12. Tyrker :

    Minusio :
    the battle of Stalingrad that lost them the war

    The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the course of the war but that doesn’t mean the war was already lost for the Germans when their Sixth Army surrendered. You may not be aware but the Germans were experimenting with nuclear weapons. When they were talking about the ‘Wunderwaffen,’ what they meant was not simply the V1 “winged bomb” and the V2 mid-range ballistic missile – which, in and of themselves, were blissfully inadequate in reversing the course of events – but their nuclear versions which, thankfully, never materialised. But it’s easy to imagine what it would have meant for the outcome of the war if the Germans destroyed London and turned Britain into nuclear wasteland… We can be thankful that their nuclear war efforts were fruitless – but that had nothing to do with Stalingrad.

    I’ve seen documents stating that German production was actually greater by the end of the war than it was at the beginning (I don’t know the truth but…). The only problem is that any time is comes down to you against the world, the numbers are not really in your favour.

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  13. As for the Second Army “having received everything they could have gotten”: I’m inclined to believe the Hungarian Wikipedia article which states that even the best supplies the motherland could give to her soldiers were clearly below the international level of technical development. The weapons and machines of the Hungarian army seem to have been outdated and inefficient. As pointed out in the nice article about “The Curse of Turán” (an urban legend about an ancient curse which has caused all latter-day misfortunes of the Hungarians) on the nyest.hu website ( http://www.nyest.hu/renhirek/max-muller-es-a-turani-atok ), the real “Curse of Turán” was the tank model called Turán which, despite numerous redesigns, never really functioned.
    But then, of course, this sad state of Hungarian military technology was just one of the consequences of Trianon and the global conspiracy against poor Hungary…

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  14. “Of the 200,000 Hungarians at Voronezh, 42,000 were killed, 26,000 became prisoners of war, and 28,000 were wounded. It is therefore surprising to hear Sándor Szakály, a military historian, declare that it is a mistake to talk about the destruction of the Second Army.”

    In military terms, I think, destruction of an army is when it stops functioning as a fighting unit. As you point it out, the withdrawal happened in complete disarray. My great grandfather only made it home in about a year by a miracle and parts of the story is still unclear. So by all functional purpose, the second army was destroyed.

    PS: Does this number include the casualties that happened during the retreat or are these only the ones perished during the campaign?

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  15. News time (positive or negative) in the Hungarian media for

    F = Fidesz+KDNP+government
    J = Jobbik
    M = MSzP+LMP+DK (democratic opposition)

    December 2012, 3 major television channels
    F= 71-73%, J= 4-8%, M= 21-25%

    http://nol.hu/belfold/ketharmados_kormany-tobbseg_a_hiradokban

    October 2012
    The average of all radio and television channels (it is not clear whether it a weighted average or not)

    F= 69.5%
    J= 7.1%
    M= 23.4%

    http://mediatanacs.hu/dokumentum/154921/politikusok_mediamegj_2012_oktober.pdf

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  16. In the official data by the Media Authority about October, 2012

    Klubradio is non-existent

    ATV (the most opposition-minded television channel)
    F= 58.7%
    J= 6.1%
    M= 35.2%

    Duna TV (public television targeting ethnic Hungarian viewers in Romania)

    F= 75.5%
    J= 7.6%
    M= 17.0%

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  17. @Jano

    I do not know the source of Mr Szakály’s brand new, lowered casualty figures.

    Other sources speak about as little as 40,000 people who made it back to Hungary.
    A few thousand people returned from captivity after the war

    Was the original strength of the Second Army, including the forced laborers
    200 thousand or 250 thousand?

    If it was 250,000 and say 50 thousand survived the battle and/or captivity,
    then as much as 200,000 people died.

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  18. Eva S. Balogh :
    Commemorating the lost soldiers is fine. What is not right is siding with Nazi Germany fifty years after the war.

    Totally. Even Germany does not side with Germany at the time. Leave it to the current Hungarian government (Fidesz) to say that they are still proud members of the Axis. Next thing will be that Hungary declares war on the USA, and the Allies. Orban already declared a war against the EU, he said so with great support from Bayer and Peace Marchers. They just did not put to into writing and send it Brussels. The sad part is that I am not kidding.

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  19. According to David Engel (http://history.fas.nyu.edu/object/davidengel) ” by the end of the war some 650,000 Jews wore the uniform for Russia (of whom approximately 100,000 lost their lives), 320,000 for Austria-Hungary (40,000 killed), and more than 50,000 more for Bulgaria and Romania (2,000 killed).” (http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/World_War_I)
    Prof. Engel is a great scholar and his articles are always very well researched and well written.

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  20. Some1 :
    According to David Engel (http://history.fas.nyu.edu/object/davidengel) ” by the end of the war some 650,000 Jews wore the uniform for Russia (of whom approximately 100,000 lost their lives), 320,000 for Austria-Hungary (40,000 killed), and more than 50,000 more for Bulgaria and Romania (2,000 killed).” (http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/World_War_I)
    Prof. Engel is a great scholar and his articles are always very well researched and well written.

    Austria-Hungary ====> WW One

    Our topic is WW Two now.

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  21. A bit OT but maybe interesting:

    One of my uncles went missing near Stalingrad, not far from where the Hungarian army was destroyed – we never got any info what exactly happened to him.
    He was a reporter for the local newspaper – normally we wouldn’t have had to go to war, but he was not a friend of the Nazis …

    My father got the Knight’s cross for defending the retreat of the German army in January 1943 at (deleted), just a few miles west of Stalingrad. With the few guns that remained to his company he held back the Russians until most of the German soldiers made it over the local river …

    He never talked much about it and wasn’t too proud about what he did in those times.

    He obviously knew that the war was already lost:

    When the town where we lived (actually I was born just some time later and when giving my father the Cross Hitler also congratulated him for his first born son …) offered him either a picture by a local artist or a piece of ground to build a house on – he took the picture because he feared that after the war he would lose that land again …

    So I have some kind of “family connection” to those poor Hungarian soldiers who lost their lives in this stupid war.

    PS:

    My father was no Nazi (no party member!) – just a soldier and the French military authorities excused him after the war as an “also ran”, I still have that piece of paper …

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  22. @ LwiiH. “I’ve seen documents stating that German production was actually greater by the end of the war than it was at the beginning (I don’t know the truth but…). The only problem is that any time is comes down to you against the world, the numbers are not really in your favour.”

    You said it.

    However, in contrast to many other countries that joined the German war effort or even participated, sometimes very eagerly, in the deportation of Jews, you can find in Germany a lot of postwar literature that dealt with the responsibility and the shame of Germany. Interestingly, the first to deal with this past were writers and journalists. Historians began much later – and the German state even later than they did. A milestone was the speech held by then president Richard von Weizsäcker on May 8, 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the end of WW II. Similar speeches are still outstanding from Austria and Italy, to name just two.

    The situation in Hungary is very diffuse, but – with a few exceptions, such as the shoe monument along the Danube in Budapest – largely apologetic and spongy.

    Ceterum censeo: The first laws excluding Jews from studying at universities in the 20th century were adopted in Hungary.

    P.S. Why is it so rarely mentioned that Jews were not persecuted in Bulgaria during WW II?

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  23. How many of those Hungarian soldiers and officers committed atrocities in Russia against the population and against their Jewish Hungarian fellow citizens?
    It took many years in Germany (and Austria) until the mainstream accepted the fact, that it was not only the SS and the Gestapo, but also the Wehrmacht committed crimes.
    Fidesz likes to show that Hungarians were always victims and tries to tell them even today that they are victims of a world conspiracy.

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  24. My father, who was very well read on history in general, but WWII especially, used to tell me that after the conquest of France and Britain effectively losing the war, the German economy went back to ‘normal’ (i.e. they no longer needed a wartime economy, as the war was effectively over).

    The Germans lost the war for one very good reason – Barbarossa. The day Hitler attacked the USSR was the day Germany began to lose the war, and the day he signed his death warrant. He had learnt nothing from History.

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  25. The title of the essay is appropriate, indeed there are attempts at “historical revisionism”. The essay states that “The Hungarian troops burned more than 1,000 villages in search of partisans.” In none of the large number of books dealing with events on the Eastern Front, is this verifiably mentioned. The excellent book by Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron. Fordham University Press, 2011, gives a thorough insight into the actions of the Honvedseg, but does not mention burning of villages. Thus, verifiable proof of the statement would be appropriate.

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