The merits of Krisztián Ungváry’s Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II are at least twofold.* First, as a military history it is unrivaled. None of the otherwise quite good military histories of the battles of Stalingrad or Warsaw or Berlin comes close to its minute details and to its vivid reconstruction of where and when and how troops moved and fought. Military historians ought to study The Siege of Budapest with jewelers’ eyes. So must the people of Budapest, and the diminishing minority among them who experienced its siege sixty years ago (as did I, a historian, who found many details in this superb reconstruction that were new to me).
Krisztián Ungváry’s second merit may be even greater. He has written not only a military history par excellence but a civil, political, sociographic reconstruction of a dreadful and sordid (and, on occasion, heroic) drama of a siege of a great capital city, inevitably including one million inhabitants, whose very existences and minds were also involved in a brutal civil war that was at the same time a war within a war. And so not only the extent but the complexity of that dreadful (yes, full of dread—there may not be a better word) drama is without equal, with a meaning that lives even beyond the history of the Second World War.
Such a history, with many of its difficulties, poses a problem for readers thousands of miles and at least two generations away. This is why I have taken it upon myself to write a necessary foreword to this magisterial work. To the difficulties of its very complicated subject matter I must now turn.
One is the psychological situation even now. A curious condition—which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been approached, let alone analyzed, by psychohistorians—is the distinct reluctance of many civilians to talk about their horrible and demeaning experiences during a war. (A recent description of this phenomenon was made by the excellent German writer W.G. Sebald. He was astounded by how few German men and women spoke about their sufferings in the air raids during the war: strange, since they and we knew of the increasingly indiscriminate bombing of German cities, as well as the otherwise frequent German tendency to self-pity, especially after their defeat.)
Such a psychic condition applies, not exactly but to a great extent, to Budapest and to much of Hungary in 1944–1945, when the sufferings of war included, among other horrors, Russian soldiers raping thousands of women. Shame and fear may perhaps explain this condition of unspoken or suppressed memories. But in the case of Budapest there was, and remains, something more than that. For many reasons—political and not only psychological ones—many Hungarians have not been able or willing to rethink (in plain English, to digest) the tragic history of their country and of its people in 1944–1945. And this in a city where a few ruins and many buildings pockmarked by shellfire from that time are visible even now.
I must therefore briefly sum up Hungary’s situation in 1944 and its then-recent history. Hungary is an ancient nation, largely (though not entirely) independent during the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. After the First World War, for all kinds of reasons, most of them wrong rather than right, the Western Allies and their recently acquired “allies” Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, applying the dubious principle of “national self-determination,” decided to amputate much of the historic Hungarian state, depriving it of two thirds of its territory in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, and leaving more than three million Hungarians under foreign rule. Hungary at Trianon was punished much more severely than was Germany at Versailles. All of this happened soon after a revolution in Hungary in November 1918 which then devolved into a short period of Communist rule in March 1919, after which a nationalist counterrevolution followed.
These traumas—revolutions, defeat, mutilation—marked Hungarian politics for the next twenty years. Hungary was still a “kingdom,” but only in name: the head of state was a former admiral, Miklós Horthy, as regent. During the 1920s Hungary recovered—somewhat. During the 1930s the German Reich rose again, led by Hitler; it rapidly became the principal power in Europe, discarding and tearing up one piece of the Versailles Treaty after the other. No wonder that the Third Reich had many admirers among Hungarians at that time, especially among officers in the military. Hitler had no particular sympathies for Hungary; but it was mostly because of the hardly avoidable alignment of Hungary with Germany that from 1938 to 1941 some of the lost Hungarian lands were actually reassigned to Hungary.
But now Hungary’s fate was already involved with the coming Second World War. When in March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria, the giant Third Reich became Hungary’s immediate neighbor. Gradually it became (or at least it should have been) evident that the principal problem for the Hungarian state was no longer the regaining of its lost lands; it was (or at least it should have been) the preservation, in one way or another, of Hungary’s independence. This priority was neither acknowledged nor thought about by most of the governing classes, not by many of the Hungarian population, and especially not by the Hungarian military. The latter were largely willing to accommodate themselves and their country to the political strategy of Hitler’s Germany (believing, among other things, that it was, or would be, invincible). Anti-Jewish laws (about which later) were instituted. In November 1940 Hungary joined the so-called Tripartite Pact, the German-Italian-Japanese alliance system. In April 1941 Hungary took part in Hitler’s war against Yugoslavia, with which it had signed an “Eternal Friendship Pact” only a few months earlier. (The conservative Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki shot himself.) In June 1941 Hungary joined Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. In December 1941 Great Britain declared war on Hungary, and Hungary declared war on the United States a few days later.
A Hungarian army was sent to Russia to fight alongside the Germans. But in 1942 and 1943 there were subtle changes. A few patriotic (rather than nationalist) conservatives and the regent chose to reduce the Hungarian commitment to Hitler carefully and secretly. There was a new prime minister, Miklós Kállay. There were clandestine attempts to establish contact with British and American officials. In January and February 1943 Russian forces largely destroyed the Hungarian 2nd Army, which was now forced to retreat. By tacit consent Hungary was not bombed by the British and American air armadas flying above the country. (Budapest experienced one small air raid by Soviet planes in September 1942.) Save for the tragedy of the Hungarian 2nd Army, Hungary and Budapest (including the Jewish population) lived largely, though of course not entirely, unscathed by the war, even as the advancing Russian armies were approaching Hungary from the northeast.
Hitler now had enough. He summoned the regent on March 18, 1944. He ordered Horthy to appoint an unconditionally pro-German and pro– National Socialist government. The regent thought he had no alternative but to comply. German divisions moved into Budapest and other cities. Soon Budapest was bombed by British and American planes. The humiliation and persecution and suppression of Hungarian Jews was now merciless. On German directives and with the compliance of many Hungarian military and civil authorities, about 400,000 Hungarian Jews were corralled in ghettoes and then deported, most of them to Auschwitz. The great majority of them did not survive the war. The last to be collected and deported were the Jews in Budapest, about 160,000 of them. In late June and early July Horthy emerged from his apathy. Spurred, too, by messages from President Roosevelt, the King of Sweden, and Pope Pius XII, he ordered the deportation of Jews from Budapest halted. Seven weeks later Hungary’s inimical neighbor Romania turned against Hitler and went over to the Russians. One month later the first Russian troops entered Hungarian territory from the southwest. On October 15 the regent, after woefully inadequate preparations, broadcast Hungary’s armistice and surrender to the Allies. Within hours he was surrounded and then arrested by German forces. Within hours the Germans installed a government of the Hungarian National Socialist Arrow Cross movement, whose composition and character included not only fanatics but also criminals. What followed in Budapest was months of terror and then the siege.
The first Russian units approached the southeastern edge of Budapest on November 2; the full siege began at Christmas; it ended with the German and Hungarian collapse and surrender on February 13, 1945. Meanwhile the hot rake of war had moved over most of Hungary, across burning villages and towns, maiming the lives of millions of people, searing their bodies and their minds. We must say something about that, too, since the battle for Budapest involved civilians as much as soldiers, if not more. It was a struggle of armies as well as a struggle of minds.
When the siege of Budapest began, the people of Budapest were badly, indeed tragically, divided. It is not possible to ascertain the accurate proportions of that division. There had been no opinion surveys (also no elections after May 1939). Moreover, divisions and contradictions existed, more than often, within the minds (and hearts) of single persons. Nevertheless I must try to describe the approximate lineaments of that torn and racked population in my capacity as a historian, as well as in that of a one-time witness and participant in those memorable months.
I estimate that at the moment the siege began perhaps 15 percent of the (non-Jewish) population of Budapest was willing to continue and to support the war on the Germans’ side. These people ranged from fanatics of the Arrow Cross to many other men and women (not necessarily Arrow Cross) who were convinced that the arrival of the Red Army was the very worst prospect that had to be resisted. Another 15 percent had arrived at the very opposite conclusion: that Hungary’s alliance with Hitler’s Reich was a political and moral disaster that had to be resisted and opposed in one way or another, that the Arrow Cross “government” consisted of criminals, and that therefore the sooner the Russians occupied Budapest the better. (Among this minority Communists and their sympathizers were a minuscule portion.) The rest, perhaps 70 percent of the population (this is a very approximate, indeed arguable rule of one sensitive thumb) were numbed by their circumstances and by events, sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling, to think much ahead, preoccupied as they were with the existing and looming dangers for them and their families, and without anything like a clear idea of what the end of the siege would bring, confused and divided as their minds were.
Apart from these few generalizations there was (and is) no sociological explanation for these deep, and sometimes fatal, divisions. It is interesting to note that the remnants of the Hungarian aristocracy were largely anti-Nazi (and therefore, at least temporarily, expecting the Russians), even though their class had the most to lose and fear from a coming Russian and Communist rule—while at the same time pro-German and National Socialist inclinations and even convictions were still widespread among the working classes. (So much for the theories of Marx et al.) The so-called Christian (meaning, at that time, non-Jewish and non-socialist) middle classes were divided, probably reflecting the abovementioned 15–70–15 ratio. So were religious and irreligious people, priests and pastors, teachers and judges and lawyers, civil servants and merchants and policemen, etc. During the siege some of these preferences and opinions would change—mostly because of their very dreadful experiences. And so did their memories—which, as I wrote earlier, so many found it easier to suppress than to reconstruct and rethink.
One of the difficulties—persisting to this day, sixty years after these events—involves the state of the Jewish population of Budapest, and their relations with their neighbors. There was this extraordinary condition (for, unlike in science, in history often exceptions rather than rules are telling) that at the end of 1944, when the battle for Budapest began, the Jewish population there was the largest surviving Jewish population in Hitler’s Europe, indeed, in all of Europe. They had been discriminated against, persecuted, suppressed—many of them had already lost their lives—but most of them were still alive. They were of course fearing for their very lives, and breathlessly waiting for their “liberation,” no matter by whom.
The fatal and bitter divisions among and within the people of Budapest were often connected with their physical and mental relationship to their Jewish neighbors. There were many gradations among the Jews themselves. For one thing, it was (and it still is) impossible to ascertain their exact numbers—mostly because of the large number of their intermarriages with Christians, and also because of the considerable number of Jewish Christians—that is, converts. It may be said that before the Second World War the assimilation of Jews, their absorption within the Hungarian people, had been extraordinary. But then modern anti-Semitism was not religious but racial; it was the reaction and resentment against the most assimilated, against the most successful Hungarian Jews. And Hungarian anti-Semitism, only sporadic before the First World War, got a tremendous boost from the national reaction against the short-lived Communist regime in 1919, in which two thirds of the commissars had been Jews. The result was the anti-Semitism of the Horthy regime, an official governmental policy, and then the anti-Jewish laws and regulations in 1938–1941, not always responses to German demands, though those did exist. Twenty-five years of anti-Jewish education and propaganda had their influences among many people. And now the fate of the Jews hung by a thread (or, more precisely, by a few frail and silken threads).
Budapest was now ruled by a fanatical anti-Jewish Arrow Cross “government.” But this was November 1944. There were “deportation transports” to Auschwitz no longer. At first the Arrow Cross, on German demands (Eichmann and his cohorts reappeared in Budapest after October), ordered that Jews of all ages and sexes were to be marched westward on foot, toward Austria and Germany. But most of these forced marching orders were then suspended, because they were impractical. By early December, before the actual siege began, the situation of Jews in Budapest was as follows:
(1) The government erected an actual ghetto in the mostly Jewish-inhabited quarters of the city, to which most Jews were forced to move. No one was allowed to pass through their high wooden palisades, within which about 72,000 Jews were crowded. Most of them survived the battle for Budapest. On January 16–17, 1945, the first Russian troops reached that part of the city. (2) Another 25,000 or 30,000 Jews lived in apartment buildings scattered throughout another section of Budapest. These “Jewish” houses (marked by a large yellow star on their portals since April 1944) were—a curious practice then—under some kind of “international” protection. The Swedish government (and the brave Raoul Wallenberg, in Budapest throughout the siege), the Swiss, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Vatican legations had declared that, temporarily, Hungarian Jews living in thus designated houses were under their protection. For the sake of maintaining their few existing diplomatic relations with such neutral states the Arrow Cross Foreign Ministry accepted that restriction. The criminal groups did not. On many occasions gangs invaded these houses in which crowds of Jewish families were cowering; they herded many of them into the wintry streets and marched them to the lower quays of the Danube, murdering them there and throwing their bodies into the icy water.
Still, most of the Jews in their “internationally” protected houses survived the siege. (Their protector Wallenberg, however, disappeared afterward.) So did many other Jews survive—perhaps as many as 50,000—who, often furnished with false identity papers, were hidden by their non-Jewish neighbors, friends, acquaintances, or harbored in convents, parish houses, monasteries, and other religious institutions before and during the siege. And so we may offer this observation: during the battle for Budapest, within the clash and crash of German and Russian armies, during a civil war in Budapest dividing its people, among the groups who hoped to end their siege with their “liberation” by a returning German or by an advancing Russian army, there was this other murderous struggle, often within the very minds of some men and women, between those who were indifferent to the fate of the Jews of Budapest and those who were not. That alone renders the history of the battle for Budapest so extraordinarily complex, far beyond a chapter in overall histories of the Second World War or of the Jewish Holocaust.
But the fate of the battle for Budapest was not determined by its population, and not even by the masses of soldiers stumbling and struggling within the city. Much of it was determined by the supreme masters of their armies, by Stalin and by Hitler.
In August 1944 the Russian armies had reached the outskirts of Warsaw. Then Stalin halted their further advance westward. He decided that they should advance into the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and then to Hungary. This choice was logical, strategic, and geographic, but also political. The Germans were about to retreat from southeastern Europe (though not from Hungary). No British or American forces would be inserted there to fill a potential military and political vacuum. Churchill knew this. That was one of the two main reasons (the other was the future of Poland) that compelled him to fly to Moscow in October to reach some kind of agreement with Stalin. They did. Stalin agreed to leave Greece to the British, in accordance with an agreement (hopefully, on Churchill’s part, but only hopefully, and temporarily) regulating the British-American and Russian proportions of influence in the Balkans and in Hungary. At first Churchill and Stalin agreed on a 50–50 ratio for Hungary; a few days later Molotov insisted on revising that to 75–25 in Russia’s favor, and Eden agreed. The Russians had already conquered much of southern and eastern Hungary and were moving toward Budapest. (There was one other factor in Churchill’s acceptance of this revision: the collapse of the Hungarian armistice attempt during the very time of Churchill’s stay in Moscow.)
At the end of October, Stalin ordered Marshal Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky, the commander of one of the two main Russian armies in Hungary, to take Budapest as soon as possible. The first Russian advance units reached the outskirts of the capital a few days later; but Malinovsky was, as yet, unable to penetrate and conquer the city, whose real siege had not begun until Christmas, when the other great Russian army, commanded by Marshal Fedor Ivanovich Tolbukhin, had encircled it from the southwest. Here I must register a slight (very slight) disagreement with my excellent friend Ungváry. Of course Stalin wanted to advance westward as soon and as much as possible. But I do not think that this was his primary concern at that time. Of course he was not pleased with the postponement of his capture of Budapest, with the duration of its siege. But while he was vexed by this circumstance, he was not particularly grieved by it. The relative slowness of the Russian conquest of Budapest is indirect evidence for that. For once, the Russians advanced with considerable caution. In any event, Stalin wanted to make certain that Hungary and Budapest would come under his control. His minions knew that only too well. One example of their political determination was that they arrested Raoul Wallenberg and spirited him to Moscow a day or so after the Russian occupation of Pest.
Perhaps more interesting were Hitler’s purposes. His principal desire was obvious. It was to halt and retard the Russian advance toward Vienna as long as possible. If that was to involve the destruction of Budapest, so be it. In this he was relatively successful: the siege of Budapest cost the Russians plenty of manpower and time; it lasted long enough. That is why Hitler forbade the garrison defending Buda to break out from the city even when two German counteroffensives were advancing toward the city and when such a breakout was—perhaps—possible. Let Budapest (or at least Buda) remain a thorn in the Russians’ flesh, compromising their progress to Vienna. Yet it is significant that the greatest German counteroffensive in western Hungary was mounted only after Budapest had fallen.
After a few breakthroughs that last German offensive on the eastern front—indeed, the last one in the entire war—also failed; but its significance resides in what it shows of Hitler’s mind. His main (and only) hope—and for years now—was to divide his enemies. To achieve that politically or diplomatically was well nigh impossible; but perhaps something like this could be achieved by a sudden great German victory in the field, on one front or the other. This, and not something like the reconquest of Paris, was Hitler’s purpose for his attack in the Ardennes (the “Battle of the Bulge”); this was his desperate purpose when he tried to inflict a decisive blow on the Russians in western Hungary in March 1945. He did not succeed—though he delayed the progress of the armies of his enemies somewhat.
Here I must add something seldom or insufficiently recounted by historians. This was Hitler’s (tacit) consent to the efforts of some of his cohorts to cause trouble between the British and Americans and the Russians. There were many instances of this in 1944. So far as Budapest went this may be illustrated by at least two matters. One involves Raoul Wallenberg, who was not even a Swedish diplomat but who arrived in Budapest because of his humanitarian convictions and with the help of Jewish and American organizations. The Germans allowed him to remain in Budapest and to travel, and treated him often as if he were a representative of Western Allied interests (which he in many ways was). They did this for several reasons, including their wish to cause trouble between Americans and Russians. The Russians knew this (and the Germans made sure they knew), which was the principal reason for their immediate arrest of Wallenberg and for his deportation to Moscow.
The other significant matter was the commands of Heinrich Himmler, who forbade the destruction of the Budapest ghetto and the murder of its inhabitants. (Also, two days before the advancing Russians reached the ghetto there was a plan by some SS units and Arrow Cross to invade the ghetto and massacre its inhabitants. A German major general stopped this, threatening those who intended to carry out the plan with arrest.) There are reasons to think that Himmler’s directives were not made in defiance of Hitler.
The siege of Budapest ended on February 13, 1945—the day after the Yalta Conference ended. Not a word was said at Yalta by Churchill, Roosevelt, or Stalin about Budapest or Hungary, both of which, evidently, were falling entirely under Russian control. Sixty years later, in 2005, the alleged heroism of the last defenders of Buda is still proclaimed and praised in a few periodicals and by hundreds of demonstrators of Hungarian right-wing organizations. Others in Budapest recall that date (if they recall it at all) as the completion of their “liberation.” Yes, there was nothing simple about the battle for Budapest; and there is nothing simple about its history and the memories of its people.
April 7, 2005