In 1920, Miklós Horthy, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy, was elected regent of Hungary by the Hungarian parliament. He remained in that post until 1944—a very long stretch by contemporary Central European standards. During Horthy’s tenure, Hungary was still officially a kingdom, but it had no king—the last king, who was the last Habsburg emperor as well, went into exile in 1919. Although Horthy always wore his Habsburg admiral’s uniform, Hungary no longer had a navy, since it had been cut off from the Adriatic Sea by the post-World War I peace treaties. This regent without a king and admiral without a fleet often attended public events on a white stallion—hence the title of the University of Cincinnati historian Thomas Sakmyster’s informative and often wryly humorous book Hungary’s Admiral on Horseback.
The most important work on Horthy to date, Sakmyster’s study, like most discussions of Horthy, makes much of the paradoxes and ambiguities of his life and political career. Like the other “strong men” who governed much of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century—Franco, Salazar, Pétain, Antonescu, and others—Horthy was neither very cultivated nor very bright, but he was cunning enough to make himself popular, and to maintain control of Hungary in the most trying times. He was a patriot who fought to preserve his country’s independence, but because he was also staunchly anti-Bolshevik and anti-liberal he alternately courted and defied Hitler. Horthy has been described, in various places, as an arch-reactionary, a liberal- conservative, a constitutional head of state, a dictator, a proto- or semi-fascist, and simply a fascist. An “ideological hybrid, a blend of elements of nineteenth century conservatism and twentieth century right-wing radicalism,” as Sakmyster calls him, Horthy changed his views and methods often, depending on the prevailing political situation and on who, at one time or another, had the greatest influence over him.
When Horthy was born in 1868, the Habsburg monarchy (or Austria-Hungary) was governed by a cosmopolitan coterie of land-owning nobles, bureaucrats, and army officers (many of whom were commoners); it was inhabited by Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, and Czechs, as well as a sprinkling of Armenians, Bulgarians, and others. Horthy’s family came from the Great Plain of central and eastern Hungary, which was dominated by the Calvinist gentry, whose sons rarely entered the service of the Catholic Habsburgs. But the Horthys were different from other members of the gentry: like his elder brother, Miklós entered the Austro-Hungarian naval academy in 1882. He had been an indifferent student. That he was admitted to the academy must be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the armed forces tended to favor Hungarians—the most reluctant members of the turbulent Habsburg family of peoples—in recruiting young men for the officer corps.
An army officer was expected to be familiar with several languages, and a navy officer with even more. Horthy soon learned to speak German, Hungarian, French, Italian, and Croatian, as well as some Spanish, Czech, and English. (When his ship was in the Adriatic port of Pola in 1904, he took English lessons from James Joyce.) Because he was charming, polite, handsome, a superb sportsman, and an accomplished pianist and singer, as well as an amateur painter, those who met him were generally enchanted.
He rose quickly through the ranks. In 1909, he was made an aide-de-camp to the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Francis Joseph, with whom he served for five years—an experience which greatly influenced his later life. He wrote in his memoirs that he had always asked himself, when confronted with a great dilemma, what Francis Joseph would have done to achieve a noble and humane situation. His decisions, however, were not always in keeping with those of the old emperor. Francis Joseph had always upheld the law; Horthy encouraged his officers, after World War I, to engage in counterrevolutionary terror. And although the emperor did not tolerate religious or ethnic discrimination, Horthy was responsible for introducing anti-Semitic laws in Hungary. By 1913, Horthy had risen to the position of a naval captain (the equivalent of colonel). He traveled widely on naval tours, met with dignitaries, hunted for big game, and admired British social and naval traditions. Although he subsequently opposed the British in two world wars, he never tired of repeating that the Royal Navy would win those wars.
At the start of World War I Horthy was sent back to sea. In 1917, while most of the Austro-Hungarian fleet was bottled up in Adriatic ports, he won a significant victory over British, French, and Italian ships in the Straits of Otranto. In February 1918, he helped to break a naval mutiny. Later that month, King Charles appointed him commander-in-chief of the Austro- Hungarian fleet, ahead of a number of officers who were senior to him. When the war ended in defeat soon afterward, however, Horthy had the humiliating task of handing over the fleet to the enemy. The monarchy was dissolved, and Horthy emerged from the war hating the socialists and Slavic nationalists, whom he blamed for the loss of the war and for the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy.
In March 1919, radicalized members of the Social Democratic Party joined forces with the Communists to overthrow the weakened and pro-Western government. The Bolshevik leader Béla Kun, a former prisoner of war in Russia, became the unofficial head of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Kun immediately undertook a drastic program aimed at building a dictatorship of the proletariat. He also launched an “internationalist proletarian war” against the Romanian and Czechoslovak armies, that were overrunning Slovakia and Transylvania, which had been Hungarian territories. Kun intended to join forces with the Soviet Red Army and bring Lenin’s revolution to the rest of Europe.
By early summer, a popular counterrevolution against Kun’s regime was rapidly spreading through the country, bringing it close to civil war. In response, the Bolsheviks cracked down on the peasantry, and some five hundred Hungarians were killed by thugs carrying out a “Red Terror.” Meanwhile, a group of officers, aristocrats, and bureaucrats had begun to form a counterrevolutionary movement in Szeged, in southern Hungary. Horthy soon joined the counterrevolutionaries and was made minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the newly christened National Army.
In Szeged, Horthy was greatly influenced by the young, radical right-wing officer corps of his new army, whose members assured him that the Communists, Socialists, and Jews were responsible for Hungary’s dissolution, and called for a wave of “White Terror” to counteract Kun’s policies and rid the country of its Jewish population. (Although most Hungarian Jews had no sympathy for the Bolshevik revolution, almost all of the Bolsheviks who seized power in March 1919 were young Jewish intellectuals, and this set off a wave of intensified anti-Semitism across Hungary.) However, since the French, who were then occupying southern Hungary, were somewhat ambivalent about the development of Hungarian nationalist forces, the counterrevolutionaries had few arms; and they had few dedicated followers. The National Army did not even fight a single skirmish against the Hungarian Reds; they left that task to the Romanians, who had invaded central Hungary.
On August 1, 1919, the Romanian army entered Budapest, and Kun’s Communist regime collapsed after only 133 days. Horthy transferred his headquarters to unoccupied western Hungary, where his officers’ detachments instituted a reign of “White Terror” that surpassed the “Red Terror” of the Bolsheviks in its scope and brutality. Its chief victims were Jews and members of the revolutionary committees. In his biography, Sakmyster presents clear evidence that Horthy tolerated numerous murders by his officers during this period, some committed as late as 1920. In his memoirs, Horthy characteristically both denied having participated in these “excesses” and justified the atrocities by arguing that there was no room for sentimentality in such an extreme situation. The Communists had broken the country apart, he asserted, and, in order to rebuild it, his army could not be “softhearted.”
After the Romanians had evacuated the Hungarian capital in November 1919, Horthy made a triumphant entry into what he called “the sinful city,” with the support of the Allied forces. A coalition government was formed, and, on March 1, 1920, Horthy asked parliament to elect him to the position of regent of the Hungarian Kingdom. The possibility that King Charles, Francis Joseph’s successor, would return to the throne was left open, but in the meantime Horthy demanded and received nearly all of the prerogatives previously enjoyed by a constitutional Habsburg ruler. The election took place while armed officers—the real ruling power in Hungary at that time—were in the parliament building; but, as Sakmyster insists, it also reflected the will of much of the war-weary public.
Although Horthy was, as Sakmyster points out, an intellectual lightweight, he had enough political shrewdness to create the impression at home and abroad that he had singlehandedly saved Hungary from the Reds. (In 1920, in a private message to the French government, Horthy said he had 500,000 “courageous, united, and loyal men” ready to join in the struggle against Bolshevism—despite the fact that Hungary, at that time, could barely muster an army of 80,000 men, few of whom had weapons.) The Entente powers immediately recognized the new regime, which they considered a bulwark against Bolshevism.
Believing that the French would later help to restore the Hungarian kingdom, on June 4, 1920, Horthy authorized his representatives to sign the Peace Treaty of Trianon, confirming Hungary’s loss of two thirds of its territory and 60 percent of its population—including more than three million ethnic Hungarians—to Romania as well as to Czechoslovakia, Austria, and what was to become Yugoslavia, among other nations. The stage was thereby set for a Central European conflict that would continue through World War II. Ironically, Hungary would eventually benefit from this dismemberment: it was now largely free of the ethnic diversity that would eventually lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, first during World War II and then after 1989.
Hungary’s political experiences during the war and postwar years are largely responsible for the essentially negative ideology of the Horthy regime: anti-liberalism, anti-socialism, and “Christian nationalism,” which, as Sakmyster points out, was basically anti-Semitism.* From the 1840s to the onset of the First World War, the Hungarian gentry and the Jewish social elite had quietly worked together to modernize Hungary. The Jews had taken charge of economic development, and the aristocracy and gentry had governed the country. It was a collaboration that led to remarkable economic progress, as well as to the integration of the mostly German- and Yiddish-speaking Jews into the Magyar national elite. By 1920, the Jews—who made up only 6 percent of the population—controlled most of the country’s industrial and banking interests and accounted for nearly one half of the professional class.
In 1922, Horthy enthusiastically greeted the visiting Secretary General of the American YMCA with the words: "I am delighted to meet the head of such an important anti-Semitic organization." Quoted by Sakmyster, p. 147.↩
In 1922, Horthy enthusiastically greeted the visiting Secretary General of the American YMCA with the words: “I am delighted to meet the head of such an important anti-Semitic organization.” Quoted by Sakmyster, p. 147.↩