After the first war, Hungarian society drifted towards fascism, particularly as a consequence of the crippling economic crisis. With antisemitism widespread, Hungary was the first country in Europe to pass anti-Jewish laws and legislation.
Hungary had forged relations with Nazi Germany during the late 1930s. Germany was making loud claims over Hungarian territories, whilst it was itself bitterly trying to resolve territorial claims it had in Yugoslavia, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
During the early parts of the war, the Hungarian Army committed anti-Jewish pogroms and more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews were forced to work on the battlefront.
In 1941 Hungarian soldiers joined the Axis powers in invading Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, however, in the following year the Hungarian regency appointed Miklos Kallay as Prime Minister in an attempt to reverse the Hungarian involvement in the war and untangle itself from its pro-Hitler position.
In occupying Ukraine, Hungarian soldiers “excelled” in brutality, particularly against the Jewish population, though the anti-communist Kallay knew too well Hungary would pay a heavy price for its involvement.
Witnessing the crushing defeat of Axis forces at Stalingrad early in 1943, Kallay made moves to contact the British and American governments indicating Hungarian forces would surrender to British and American forces at the end of the war rather than the anticipated vengeful Red Army of the Soviet Union. However, this supposedly secret agreement and attempt to quietly extricate Hungary from the war was also relayed to Berlin.
Nazi Germany Invades
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) seized on this shift and sent agents to the country in the hope of establishing contact with Kallay and the emerging resistance movement. In response, the hardline pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party helped coordinate a brutal German invasion of Hungary.
This sparked a wave of resistance attacks, both on the Arrow Cross and German transport and communications lines. While the resistance movement was smaller in Hungary their activities meant the Nazi occupiers were forced to station a considerable number of troops there who in other circumstances would have been deployed against the Soviets.
Although his government had initially supported Germany’s war against the Soviet Union, Kallay and the military were accused of “partisan” activities and anti-Nazi sympathies.
While the Hungarians had implemented many anti- Jewish laws in line with Nazi Germany, it had refused deportations and mass murder and did not participate alongside other occupied and Axis countries in rounding up Jews post-Stalingrad.
The Nazis sent Kallay to Dachau concentration camp and Hungary descended into bitter strife. The Arrow Cross carried out Hitler’s wishes in murdering and deporting Jews. By July 1944 more than half a million Hungarian Jews and Roma had been deported and murdered.
Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Hungarian Arrow Cross whose supporters fought alongside the Nazis during World War II, looks out over the Danube shortly before his execution in 1946. During the war, his pro-Nazi forces threw resistance fighters into the same river.
(Photo by Keystone-France/GammaKeystone via Getty Images)
There was little organised resistance movement in the country. There were anti-German protests in the autumn of 1941 and the following spring 8,000 people gathered on the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 War of Independence. Leading political opponents were arrested by the Gestapo, though a collaboration between the Social Democrats and Communists saw a joint statement against siding with Nazi Germany in the war issued on 11 September 1943.
In November 1944 a Committee of Liberation of the Hungarian National Uprising called for the overthrow of the German regime but its leaders were almost instantly arrested, though there were some small scale attacks on German forces.
Six hundred Hungarian volunteers died fighting against the Germans during the siege of Budapest, which saw Soviet and Romanian forces encircle Budapest for 50 days of fierce fighting before the Germans eventually surrendered. While this enabled the Soviets to march onto Berlin, it was at a cost. Almost 40,000 civilians died in the siege, through starvation or military action.