Admiral Miklós (Nicholas) Horthy is one of the most heavily debated historical figures of 20th century Hungarian politics. Governor of Hungary, a kingdom without a king between 1919 and October 1944, the last years of his reign saw the 1941 deportation of Hungarian Jews to Kamenets-Podolsk, the 1942 pogrom against Hungarian Jews and Serbs in Újvidék (today Novi Sad, Serbia), and the 1944 deportations of close to half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Yet Horthy still has followers and admirers in Hungary today, largely due to the territorial gains of the small Eastern European nation achieved during Horthy’s governance. His behavior during the 1944 German occupation of Hungary remains a matter of dispute. In this article I seek to present the main questions regarding Horthy’s collaboration and explain why Holocaust scholars see him as one of the most important negative characters in the history of the Hungarian Shoah. Due to the limited space I am not dealing with other controversial aspects of his career (such as the 1919 White Terror and the atrocities of 1941 and 1942 already mentioned).
Horthy’s views regarding the 1944 deportations remain a matter of debate. Some contemporary politicians, such as László Baky, secretary of the interior during the German occupation, claimed that Horthy was enthusiastic about the removal of rural Hungarian Jewry. Edmund Veesenmayer, the German ambassador offered a similar reading of the events. Others, such as Istvánné Kovács, a witness in Baky’s postwar trial and László Mérey, “főispán” (political overseer of Hungarian counties) of Pest country claimed differently. German sources also claim that Horthy needed to be “convinced” of the “merits” of the deportations. One might argue that a person who had to be “convinced” of the “merits” of such atrocities probably did not support them in the first place.
But bad personal feelings towards such terrible events hardly relieve politicians of historical guilt. It did not matter much whether Hungarian gendarmes deported Jews with a painful heart or with glee. It also does not matter much whether Horthy felt bad about the deportations or not, seeing how he had barely done anything to stop them.
Horthy’s actions during the German occupation are controversial, but it is safe to say that during most of this period (lasting from 19th March 1944 to the country’s liberation in April) he did not do enough to save Hungarian Jews. In fact, in some cases he openly endorsed deportations, such as the 14th April German request of the deportation of 50.000 Jews for “labor”.
Some might argue that Horthy probably didn’t know what was happening to the deported Jews. We do not, in fact, know beyond dispute when exactly Horthy received news of Auschwitz, how much of this information did he internalize, and how he felt about Jews being deported there. Secondary sources and memoirs date Horthy’s being informed about Auschwitz as early as May 1944. Documents have yet to emerge that could settle the debate for good. But some documents do shed light on the question. According to transcripts of Horthy’s meetings with Adolf Hitler, the Hungarian governor had to know since 1943 that the Germans were killing Jews all over Europe. This is not the same as knowledge about Auschwitz, but hardly could Horthy claim naiveté after this.
Horthy’s office also received reports of the deportations and the accompanying atrocities in May 1944. Long before the Hungarian deportations of 1944 were finished, Horthy could have learned of the terrible circumstances of these events. One such report also made it clear that Hungarian Jews were being “annihilated.” Even if Horthy only thought that hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens were being deported for “forced labor,” we can already establish his guilt. What sort of politician allows for his citizens to be treated this way? And what sort of politician could claim to be uninformed of the largest genocide happening in contemporary Europe?
To be fair, Horthy of course was not the only person responsible for these events. Much of the guilt lay with the collaborationist prime minister, Döme Sztójay, his minister of interior, Andor Jaross, and the two secretaries of the interior, László Endre and the already mentioned László Baky. All of these men were executed after the war. Assisting them were the ∼200.000 bureaucrats, policemen and gendarmes of the Hungarian state administration, who followed their superiors’ orders without question.
One might only wonder how the state administration would have reacted had Horthy ordered them to resist the invaders and the collaborators. We will never know, as Horthy never issued such an order during the deportations of 1944.
On 6th July 1944 Horthy put and end to the deportations, thereby sparing Budapest’s Jewish citizens. This event is often cited by Horthy’s admirers as a heroic act of a misunderstood politician. But certain historical facts must be noted here. Budapest’s Jewish citizens were saved by his action, but there were plans to annihilate Budapest Jews even after Horthy stepped down in October 1944. This is not the place to discuss how many times Budapest Jewry was saved and by whom, but it was not Horthy’s action alone that led to the survival of the capital’s Jewish population.
And Horthy’s record regarding the remaining Hungarian Jews is not flawless either. According to a document dated 23d August 1944, Horthy was ready to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jewish men then performing unarmed labor service (meaning around 60.000 men). It must be noted that this happened after the 6th July halting of the deportation trains. Horthy was apparently ready to let the Germans murder more Hungarian Jews, even if this final atrocity did not come to being.
Horthy’s behavior during the German occupation is therefore controversial, but careful historical study allows historians to draw sound conclusions. Horthy’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust is clearly a very negative one. He did not do enough to save Jews, but occasionally even agreed to the deportations. Even his act of halting Budapest deportations is overshadowed by his readiness to let tens of thousands of Jewish men be deported – even if it did not happen so in the end. Any praise for Horthy’s 1944 actions can only be a sign of poor historical knowledge.