Survivor in a Sea of Barbarism

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 …

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