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.

After the war, the members of the urban, gentile middle class and intelligentsia demanded state assistance in their competition with successful Jewish businessmen and professionals. And, in September 1920, Horthy’s parliament passed laws stipulating that the enrollment of students of various “races and nationalities” in Hungarian universities would be limited to their percentage in the population. As Sakmyster demonstrates, Horthy’s position on the Jews depended on the persuasive power of those around him; he swung from being moderately tolerant of them to allowing policies strongly discriminatingagainst them.

When King Charles, then living in exile in Switzerland, twice attempted to reclaim his throne in 1921, Horthy rejected him, citing—correctly—the danger of Czechoslovak and Yugoslav military intervention against a restoration of the Habsburgs. Distraught, Charles was deported by the British to Madeira, where he died a year later, at the age of thirty-four. Charles was a deeply religious man, a political liberal, and a supporter of the Jews; his failure to return to the throne was a tragedy for Central Europe.

Still, during the next ten years, thanks to a talented new prime minister, Count István Bethlen, Hungary gradually returned to the combined liberal and conservative political practices—if not the ideology—of the prewar years. The White Terrorist groups were disarmed, and Bethlen reached agreements with both the Social Democratic trade unions and the Jewish-owned banks and industries. As a result, Hungary was allowed to join the League of Nations in 1922, and a large foreign loan put an end to the inflation that flared up in 1923. Even the anti-Semitic law passed in 1920 was now largely ignored. The press was almost entirely free and the judiciary independent. Politics were almost as they had been before World War I, except that the country was much poorer and there was now a fascist far-right both within and outside Bethlen’s government party. (Although the political power of the government party was guaranteed by the election system, other parties, with the exception of the Communist Party, were allowed some representatives in parliament.) In the Bethlen era, Horthy reigned more than he ruled, allowing Bethlen the freedom to formulate policy, while he devoted himself to ceremonial functions, tennis, and hunting.

The Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power put an end to this relatively tranquil period. Bethlen, whom the far right called a “Jew-loving aristocrat,” resigned in 1931, and a year later Horthy chose Gyula Gömbös, one of his former White Terror officers and the founder of the Party of Race Defenders, to replace him. Gömbös brought with him a number of young right-wing radicals who encouraged an ever-widening split in the counterrevolutionary ranks. Within the governing party were now the fascistic radicals, in effect the New Right, and the conservatives with liberal inclinations. The liberal and left-wing parties, which were diminishing in size with every election, had no choice but to support the conservatives.

More active during these years than he had been in the Bethlen era, Horthy sometimes listened to his informal circle of elders—made up primarily of aristocrats and led by Count Bethlen—which invariably counseled caution in foreign policy, restraint in enforcing anti-Jewish legislation, and extreme moderation in social reform. At other times Horthy was influenced by his radical cronies from 1919, who urged him to appoint himself a dictator, dissolve the large estates, expropriate Jewish property, and prepare for war in alliance with Germany. A succession of prime ministers appointed by Horthy after the death of Gömbös in 1936 started out with cautious programs but ended up by being more radical and more pro-German than Horthy would have liked. This was primarily because these politicians had been charged with an impossible combination of tasks: to fight Bolshevism; to regain the lost parts of Hungary; to rely on Germany to achieve these two ends; to reduce the Jewish presence in the economy and society; yet also to keep the domestic fascists at bay and preserve Hungarian independence from Germany. Between 1932 and 1944, every cabinet included both anti-Nazis and politicians who were loyal to the Nazis. Horthy did not dare to dismiss the Nazi agents for fear of angering the Germans, yet he also refused to dismiss the anti-Nazis, whom he trusted.

In 1938, now in cooperation with Hitler and German policy, Hungary was on the way to recovering parts of its old kingdom. Its economy had passed from deep depression to something approaching prosperity, thanks primarily to the German rearmament program. Riding a white horse intended to evoke the legend of Arpád—the Hungarian chieftain who had conquered the Carpathian Basin late in the ninth century—Horthy entered southern Slovakia, then northern Transylvania, and finally north central Yugoslavia, all of which had once belonged to Hungary. These were his greatest triumphs and, as Sakmyster points out, by 1940 his “prestige and popularity in Hungary were immense.”

In June 1941, Hungary entered the war against the Soviet Union. It is not easy to see how this could have been avoided, since its neighbors and bitter rivals—Slovakia, Romania, and Croatia—had also joined with Germany. Horthy’s aim, after all, was to preserve and perhaps to enlarge territories that Hungary had recovered from its neighbors since 1938. He later claimed that he had been tricked into the war by his prime minister, who had failed to pass on a friendly message from the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, but that is not believable. Horthy was naive enough to expect that Hungary could take part in the destruction of Bolshevism without heavy losses, without becoming a German satellite, and without Great Britain and the United States resenting his alliance with Hitler.

The German alliance and immense domestic pressure were soon accom-panied by a series of anti-Jewish measures. Three major laws, adopted between 1938 and 1941, imposed considerable economic hardship on middle-class Jews, and also led to the death of thousands of men sent to the front in Jewish labor formations. Still, the persecution of Jews in other parts of Europe was far worse than in Hungary. When his prime minister, Pál Teleki, urged him to make some concessions to the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement in 1940, Horthy replied,

I have perhaps been the first loudly to profess anti-Semitism, yet I cannot look with indifference at inhumanity and senseless humiliations when we still need [the Jews]. Moreover, I consider for example the Arrow Cross men to be far more dangerous and worthless for my country than I do the Jew. The latter is tied to this country from self-interest, and is more faithful to his adopted country than the Arrow Cross men, who… with their muddled brains want to play the country into the hands of the Germans.

In March 1944, 95 percent of the Hungarian Jews and the thousands of Jewish refugees from abroad were still alive, and many Jewish factory owners and bankers in Budapest had made immense profits from manufacturing arms for the German and Hungarian armies. Whenever Hitler pushed Horthy to take drastic measures against the 825,000 Hungarian Jews, Horthy argued that this would bring about the collapse of the Hungarian war industry.

The argument of some Hungarian nationalists that Hungary collaborated with the Germans mainly to save Jewish lives is unconvincing; but so is the belief, held by the Allies during the war and left-wing critics of the Horthy regime ever since, that Hungary could and should have resisted the Germans outright. How could such a resistance have been successful, when the necessary arms could not have been manufactured without German support, when most of the army officers were Nazi sympathizers, and when the public feared the Russians more than the Germans? (In a circular dated October 1932, Horthy claimed that the Bolsheviks had sunk the Titanic, caused Hungarian trains to crash, and kidnapped European statesmen.) It is easy to say that the army should have been purged and the public should have been given different information, but such a view ignores the consequences of the Trianon Treaty giving Hungarian territory to its hostile neighbors.

Horthy was right in arguing that the Jewish community would have been annihilated had Hungary resisted. Such was the case in Poland and in the Netherlands. It is true that anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary prepared the way for the wholesale robbery of Jewish property, as well as for the 1944 deportation by brutal Hungarian gendarmes of nearly half a million Jews before the eyes of an indifferent public. But it is also true that in such countries as France—where there had been no anti-Jewish laws before the German occupation—thousands of Jews were also deported by brutal French gendarmes before the eyes of an indifferent public. Meanwhile, in fascist Italy—where Mussolini had introduced some anti-Jewish measures as early as 1938—the public (and the Italian occupation forces in France and Yugoslavia) sabotaged the efforts of the Germans and their Italian henchmen to deport Jews to Auschwitz.

In January 1943, a Soviet offensive destroyed the Hungarian army at the River Don. In two weeks, more than half of the 200,000-man army became casualties—killed, wounded, sick, or captured—along with 40,000 members of the Jewish labor battalions. Horthy managed to withdraw the remaining Hungarian soldiers from the front lines, and thereafter he tried to get Hungary out of the war. In the following months, the anti-Nazi Prime Minister Miklós Kállay made repeated attempts to reach a secret agreement with the Western Allies. (Horthy was not briefed on the details of these attempts, so that he would be able to deny knowledge of them if confronted by Hitler.) The Western Allies were not interested in a separate armistice, however, and in any case they were nowhere near the Hungarian border.

Meanwhile, Hitler was being kept informed of Hungarian moves by pro-Germans in the Hungarian leadership. In April 1943, he personally reproached Horthy, condemning the performance of his supposedly unenthusiastic troops and his refusal to resolve the “Jewish question” in a way that was satisfactory to the Nazis. The seventy-five-year-old Horthy argued that the Jews were necessary to the Hungarian economy and said, naively, “What am I supposed to do with the Jews then, after I have taken from them all possibility of making a living? After all, I can’t have them shot.” Later that year, Kállay approved a secret agreement with the Allies, which stipulated that Hungary would surrender unconditionally to Anglo-American troops if they reached Hungary.

On March 19, 1944, the German army and SS marched into Hungary. There was no resistance, largely because Horthy had been summoned to Germany earlier and was held there on the night of the invasion. In any case, he and Kállay had previously decided not to resist in case of invasion, if only because Hungary still desperately needed German protection against the Red Army, which was then only a hundred miles away from the border. Kállay and Count Bethlen went into hiding; numerous other conservatives and liberals were arrested by the Gestapo. Under threat of complete takeover by the German Reich, Horthy then appointed an unconditionally pro-German cabinet which proceeded to remobilize the nation for war. With Adolf Eichmann’s assistance, the Hungarian authorities also began to round up any Jews living in the countryside for immediate deportation to Auschwitz as the last installment of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

In his memoirs, Horthy claimed that he was powerless to stop these deportations. He also claimed to have known nothing of the real goal of the transfer of the Jews. He had, in fact, been informed several times of the true nature of the deportations, but he was unable, Sakmyster writes, to imagine that, “with the war at such a critical stage, the Germans would simply kill these Jews rather than use them as workers.” He chose to dismiss the reports as “the usual gossip of cowardly Jewish sensation-mongers,” until June 1944, when his son passed on a first-hand account written by two prisoners who had managed to escape the systematic murder of Jews at Auschwitz.

Soon Horthy began to receive messages from Pope Pius XII, King Gustav of Sweden, Franklin Roosevelt, and other world leaders urging him to act to protect the remaining Jews in Hungary. In July 1944, when it came time to deport the 200,000 Jews still living in Budapest, he took military measures to oppose Eichmann and the gendarmes, who he feared were also planning a coup d’état against him. The smoothness and speed of the deportation of the Hungarian Jews from the countryside was unique in the history of the Holocaust; but so was Horthy’s decision to order armored units to prevent the deportation of the Budapest Jews. Ultimately, over 40 percent of the Hungarian Jews survived.

Horthy was later asked why he did not resign in the spring of 1944 to show his opposition to such atrocities. He said that, if he had done so, the Budapest Jews and the many thousand Jewish men who were performing labor service in the Hungarian army would also have been deported; and power would have fallen into the hands of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s radical fascist party. Immediately after the German invasion, a delegation of Jewish industrialists pleaded with Horthy to remain in office. One must add, however, that Horthy was mainly concerned about “good” Jews—decorated war veterans and capitalists, some of whom were his personal friends.

Early in September 1944, following Romania’s sudden defection to the Allied side, the Red Army invaded Hungary. Horthy had already dismissed his pro-Nazi prime minister and he now began to negotiate an armistice with the Allied forces and Russia—hoping for an agreement which would allow the German troops to withdraw unmolested—but discussions proceeded slowly. The Germans knew about these plans; they began to prepare for a coup d’état and as a first step, on October 15, they kidnapped Miklós Horthy, Jr., the regent’s only surviving son, whose older brother had been killed at the front. Horthy announced his intention to surrender to the Red Army that same day, but the army high command, imbued with the fanatical anti-communism which Horthy himself had encouraged, refused to follow his instructions and the surrender attempt failed. German SS and paratroopers arrested Horthy and, in order to secure his son’s safety, the old man signed a piece of paper which made his archrival, the Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi, his successor. Horthy and his family were then put on a train to Bavaria.

Six months of horror followed, as Arrow Cross thugs killed thousands of Jews and terrorized an increasingly reluctant populace into fighting a losing battle at the front—now just a short streetcar ride away from the center of Budapest. The arrival of the undisciplined and rapacious Red Army meant liberation for the Jews and political prisoners, but the Soviet occupation was greatly resented by the rest of the population.

All of this no longer directly affected Horthy, who was being held prisoner by the Germans. Liberated by the Americans in the spring of 1945, he was treated alternately as an illustrious statesman and as a suspected war criminal. Fortunately for Horthy, Stalin showed sympathy for him. The first anti-fascist government, appointed in December 1944 by the Red Army, included three of Horthy’s generals, one of whom was made prime minister. Horthy was spared extradition to Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he was wanted in connection with the massacres committed by local commanders of the Hungarian army in northern Yugoslavia.

After he was released by the Americans, he settled in Estoril, Portugal. He had always lived fairly modestly and, as Sakmyster shows, he had never accumulated any wealth. In Portugal, Horthy and his wife survived thanks to the generosity of Jewish friends. He died a few months after the 1956 revolution in Hungary, without ever having returned to his homeland.

Horthy’s regime is now considered a failure: it could not protect the country against German and Soviet imperialism; it was unable to keep the territory it had reacquired; it turned over nearly half a million of its most industrious citizens to the German murder machine; it did not even succeed in protecting the privileged social classes in whose interests the counterrevolution had been made. As Sakmyster argues, however, it is unlikely that any other ruler would have done better.

Miklós Horthy was neither a fascist nor a dictator; he was not an evil man, but he was not a humanitarian either. Although he claimed to have been a lifelong anti-Semite, under his reign more Jews survived the Nazi terror than in any other country in Hitler’s Europe except Romania. Horthy was no more shallow and muddle-headed than Pétain or Franco, and he was certainly less brutal than the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu. Sakmyster, in the conclusion to his excellent book, seems fair when he writes:

In the ultimately hopeless task of preserving Hungarian independence while at the same time working toward a revision of the hated Treaty of Trianon, Horthy at times tilted dangerously toward Nazi Germany. But in the end he always shrank from the employment of totalitarian methods in Hungary…. It was largely through his influence that in early 1944 Hungary was such an anomaly: an island in the heart of Hitler’s Europe where a semblance of the rule of law and a pluralistic society had been preserved in a sea of barbarism.

This Issue

April 8, 1999