Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars: Part Two: World Peace to World War, 1929-1939.    Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Between the Pacts: The Thirties.

In 1928, US Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand drafted an agreement for states to sign, pledging to resolve differences without resorting to war. This became known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact and though it meant little in real practical terms, it was of great symbolic importance, representing the high-water mark of multi-lateral diplomatic relations between the war. There were thirteen other signatories, including Great Britain and Hungary. The pact was then ratified by the Hungarian Parliament in July 1929. In a series of bilateral agreements with the United States, the Hungarian government then agreed to submit disputes to either an international tribunal or commission.

The architects of this new political outlook were Hungary’s two prime ministers in the period 1920 to 1931, Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen. Both were from old, aristocratic Transylvanian families, and were sincere admirers of the liberal achievements of La Belle Epoch of 1867-1914. Bethlen succeeded in stabilising the Hungarian economy by the middle of the twenties, with the external support of the British and Italians, in the face of French resistance, prompted by their Little Entente allies in central Europe. This successful stabilisation was crowned by the introduction of a new currency, the pengő in 1927. However, the Paris peace settlement had torn apart what had been a well-functioning economic unit, a functioning free market in which goods, services and people travelled between Trieste and Lvov (now Ukraine). This had been replaced by a customs war in the 1920s, between the successor states, each trying to achieve autarky instead of maintaining economic co-operation. For Hungary this meant high tariffs, as high as 75 per cent, imposed on forty thousand industrial products. As a result, the modest economic recovery of the second half of the twenties was rather uneven. While the textile industry prospered, food processing lost about a tenth of its share of output. Machine industry also declined, so that, for example, Oszkár Asbóth’s helicopter had to be manufactured outside the country. Despite a forgery scandal in 1925/6, Bethlen was seen as the guarantor of political stability in Hungary by the British and Italian governments, so that the Regent was determined to keep him in power.

006In the late twenties, a young diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi was in North America, studying American public administration and international law in Cleveland, as well as English language and literature in Evanston. He became Vice-Consul in Chicago and Winnipeg as well as Cleveland, and due to his eight year mission he saw clearly the increasingly important role of the USA as a great global economic and political power. His work as a diplomat brought him to the attention of Bethlen, who wanted to make him his personal adviser on his return. He had met the Prime Minister in 1929, while back in Budapest, at a dinner party at the Hotel Hungaria. After the meal, he was ushered into a room to meet the Premier, and had an unexpectedly long, forty-five minute talk with him. However, Bethlen finally resigned in 1931, so it wasn’t until four years later that Szent-Iványi became an influential foreign policy adviser. It was in 1931, when again on leave from North America, Szent-Iványi met Kálmán Darányi, then Under-Secretary to Bethlen, who told him that the Premier was creating a new department, which Szent-Iványi was to head, but the plans did not materialise due to Bethlen’s resignation, and he returned to America. In the autumn of 1935 he was recalled to Budapest and put in charge of the Press Department of the Foreign Ministry. During this period, the logic and enforcement of the Treaty of Trianon continued to isolate Hungary and push her towards Germanophile policies. However, Hungarian foreign policy makers tried to separate territorial revision for Hungary from German policies and interests. They built ties with Italy, and sought to ease relations with French and British political circles as well as building a Hungarian-Polish horizontal axis of mutual friendship and establishing friendly contacts with Yugoslavia. All of these initiatives were designed to avoid a one-sided German orientation. In October 1936, the pro-Fascist Premier, General Gömbös died in Munich and was replaced by Dárányi, whom Szent-Iványi likened to the British PM Baldwin as lacking in genius but nevertheless honest and talented, an asset to Hungarian public life, just as Stanley Baldwin, according to Vantissart, was to the British political scene. Darányi was, like Baldwin, more interested in domestic affairs, which left Szent-Iványi and other skilled linguists in the Foreign Ministry free to pursue a more pro-western Foreign policy. However, both the British and the successor states showed little interest in the half-hearted feelers put out by the Hungarian diplomats, and the prospect of even the limited assistance offered by Germany in the revision of Trianon was too seductive to resist.

These circumstances also narrowed the scope for domestic action by the moderate conservatives now in power. Darányi tried to purge the government party of his predecessor, but this resulted in 020the swelling of the ranks of the fascist organisations that had been mushrooming since 1932. The leader of the Party of National Will, Szálasi, established close links with the Nazis during a visit to Germany in the autumn of 1936. Through these links, German influence and political pressure increased in Hungary. This also resulted from the fact that, by the end of the thirties, over half of Hungary’s foreign trade, providing a quarter of its income, was dependent on Germany. Darányi’s Foreign Minister, Kálmán Kánya, failed in 1937 to secure a non-aggression pact with the Little Entente countries, linked to the settlement of the minorities’ problem and the acknowledgement of Hungarian military parity, and to re-awaken British interest in Hungary in order to counter the growing influence of Germany. It was the Austrian Anschluss that alerted Hungary’s political leadership to the real aims of the Germans. Rather than restoring at least the Hungarian majority parts of the Burgenland to Hungary, Hitler completely absorbed it into the Reich. It revealed that the essence of his revisionist plans was to revise the peace settlement of 1919-20 only to the extent of increasing German territory.

At the same time, it became increasingly clear that any further territorial revisions of Trianon would be dependent on German support, and the new Premier, Imrédy, who was appointed in August 1938, and packed his second government with pro-German politicians. It was during his two Premierships that the polarisation of political ideas and attitudes which had begun under Darányi became wider. Imrédy’s right-wing opponents suggested that they had discovered he had Jewish ancestry and, in order to deflect attention away from this, he crossed over to the Right and became the main promoter of anti-Semitic legislation. Until this volte-face, he had been a cool-headed economist, committed to the cause of Revision on these grounds, but remaining pro-western in orientation, not wanting to jeopardise Hungary’s future in this direction by allying it with Hitler’s Germany. It was the famous Kiel incident which convinced him that his career depended on cooperating with Germany at the expense of his otherwise excellent relationship with the western democracies. This took place at the end of August, 1938, when the Bled Agreement was signed between Hungary and the Little Entente, under which the latter recognised Hungary’s equal right to armament and guaranteed observation of the rights of Hungarian ethnic minorities, while Hungary renounced the use of force to re-annex territories ceded under the Treaty of Trianon. Simultaneously, Regent Horthy and his Hungarian delegation were visiting Hitler in Kiel. Hitler considered Hungary’s agreement with the Little Entente as a stab in the back, since, by then, he was preparing to carve up Czechoslovakia. He counted on Hungary’s active participation in this, including military action, and sought the collapse of the Little Entente as a prelude to this. Therefore, as soon as the news of the agreement with these countries broke, the Nazi leaders became reproachful, and the Kiel negotiations broke up, with the Hungarian delegation returning home.

003The Munich Agreement (September, 1938) disappointed Hungarian foreign policy makers still further, when all four heads of government failed again to meet the Revisionist claims of Hungary. In its annex, the agreement called for a settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims as well as a guarantee of Czechoslovakia’s new borders, which was never ratified. On 2 October, Poland occupied Teschen, a rich industrial region, which encouraged Hungary, later, to annex a broad strip of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia. However, it was the desire to turn away from Germany and Nazism which proved the strongest reaction in Hungary at the time of the Agreement, since it seemed futile to rely on Hitler’s promises and high-sounding declarations.The rejection of collaboration with Germany began with certain political leaders, such as Bethlen, Teleki and Keresztes-Fischer, earlier in 1938, and was developed by those who supported the goals of Independence and Revision in combination. Eventually, the Hungarian public also began to reject Nazi domination. These developments only served to annoy Hitler, who assured the Hungarian leadership that he considered their claims against Czechoslovakia to be valid, and expected their co-operation in realising his plans to redraw the borders created at Versailles. The First Vienna Award, of 2 November 1938, although beneficial to Hungary, did not meet the expectations of Hungarian public as far as their Revisionist goals were concerned. Moreover, the annexation of southern Slovakia took place without consultation with Britain and France. This reduced Chamberlain to stating in the House of Commons that,

We never guaranteed the frontiers as they existed. What we did was to guarantee against unprovoked aggression – quite a different thing.

Meanwhile, in Budapest, Kánya was replaced as Foreign Minister by the pro-German István Csáky; Hungarian Nazi organisations, in addition to the Arrow Cross, were legalised, and the government announced its decision to leave he League of Nations and join the Anti-Comintern Pact, allying it with Germany, Italy and Japan. Britain had remained apathetic towards Hungary, so007 became over-anxious to please the Germans instead. He went too far in this and was dismissed in favour of Pál Teleki, who, in February 1939, became Premier for a second time, with the aim of securing political consolidation of conservative nationalist policies. However, by this time the damage had been done within the Horthy regime, since the General Staff of the Hungarian Army had been taken over by pro-Nazis, led by Chief of Staff Henrik Werth, appointed by the Regent in October 1938. Swabian in origin, Werth was clearly pro-German, believing that Revision could only be carried out in cooperation with Germany. Given the recent and unparalleled growth in Germam military power, which he studied carefully, Hungary had to attach her future to the rising star in Europe, durch Dick und Dünn (under all circumstances). The appointment of Werth to Chief of Staff was a huge blunder on the part of the Regent and his advisers and General Keresztes-Fischer, as later proved by the activities of Werth and his inner circle of collaborators. It was these activities which eventually propelled Hungary into the Second World War, against the wishes of its leading politicians, at a time when it was already becoming obvious that Nazi Germany could not win the war.

There were also a number of other pro-German groups operating at various levels of Hungarian society and with varying degrees of influence. They all claimed that Germany was Hungary’s only friend, because even Britain backed France in its policy, begun by the peace treaties of 1919-20, of stifling Hungarian ambitions through its Little Entente satellite states in central-eastern Europe. The lack of interest in far-away lands shown by the British and French at Munich served as confirmation of this view.

However, even Teleki had changed his own concept of Revision several times during the inter-war period. In the 1920s he had advocated a complete territorial revision, but during the thirties he argued for a partial readjustment of the borders, based on ethnic composition. Behind his changing point of view there was some scientific theory, based on the contemporary French and Anglo-Saxon schools of political and economic geography going back to the traditions of antiquity. According to this school of thought,

 …this globe that presents natural life and social activities is like an organic body, a system of connections with a net of capillaries…

008Teleki’s foreign policy in the late thirties was focused on preserving Hungarian sovereignty in its geopolitical relationship with Germany, while at the same time avoiding confrontation with the Allied powers by resisting German influence in central Europe. Following Darányi’s resignation in November 1938, Teleki, then Minister of Culture, entrusted Domokos Szent-Iványi with a confidential Charge: to put together a report assessing the possible future position of North America in the event of war breaking out. His eighty-page report was completed in February 1939, just as Teleki took office as Premier. In it he concluded that,

In the evolving world war – except for the United States and the Soviet Union – there will be in reality only defeated powers. As a consequence of Europe’s collapse into ruins, the United States will profit from putting the British Empire on her leash…

Following the dissemination of his report, Szent-Iványi was accepted in anti-Nazi circles as a trustworthy confidant. He developed a close working relationship with Teleki as PM, and Teleki entrusted him with a secret project, managing what in effect was a private cabinet, a so-called Information Department, a fourth section of the Premier’s Office (ME-IV). Among his tasks was the control of the Prime Minister’s personal and press matters as well as connections with Hungarian minorities abroad. In reality, this was an alternative, secret cabinet, gathering intelligence in order to organise an anti-German foreign policy. This would have been impossible to organise openly against the backdrop of the shadow of the Third Reich. Szent-Iványi became the key figure in this anti-Nazi conspiracy which became the Hungarian Independence Movement, mobilising all the social and political forces that were opposed to the Nazi occupation of East-central Europe. These forces included, at times, even Regent Horthy himself, as well as former Premier Bethlen. The Hungarian Independence Movement (MFM) was an organised network which had undercover men in embassies in Budapest and abroad. It was dedicated to the all-embracing ideal of independence which envisaged Hungary as a completely sovereign state, a determining force in social solidarity and national identity.

Despite Hungary’s joining in the Anti-Comintern Pact at the beginning of 1939, Teleki still hoped to create a central European and Balkan bloc with the support of Britain and France, as well as the United States. As Germany was completing the destruction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Hungary occupied Ruthenia. Horthy was reported to have secretly told the US Minister to Hungary that his country was only pursuing its own interests and that he and the Hungarian people sided with Great Britain rather than Germany. However, he pointed out that…

…the democratic powers since the war had remained inattentive to the pleas of Hungary who had achieved something only with the aid of Germany and Italy.

023The Hungarian Government, including Horthy, sought to maintain contacts with the western allies throughout the spring and summer of 1939. Nevertheless, now that they had had their first real success in revisionism, all Hungarian politicians, responding to public expectations, were willing to subordinate all other considerations to the restoration of historic borders more than ever before. Teleki was no exception to this rule, and while he secretly hoped for the ultimate victory of the western democracies in their coming conflict with the fascist dictatorships, he took advantage of the opportunity to redress the Hungarian grievances which they had caused. This policy has been criticised for leading the country down a dangerous path, which eventually proved lethal both to the Regency regime and the country. However, to have constantly resisted Hitler’s demands in 1939, would have exposed Hungary to a similar fate as that of Poland. Teleki scored a distinct success by achieving a long-coveted common border with Poland, thus breaking the encirclement of the Little Entente. The occupation of Ruthenia or the Carpatho-Ukraine gave Hungary a territory nearly as large as that recovered by the terms of the First Vienna Award. However, this could not be justified on ethnic grounds alone, since three-quarters of the population was Ukrainian. It was a strategic move, synchronised with Hitler’s liquidation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March. Teleki’s plan to grant broad autonomy to the territory had amounted to nothing by the summer. Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, if not of Hungary, had now run its course, and on 1 April, Britain and France promised Poland that they would go to war should Germany invade.

The Hungarian government was certainly aware of Hitler’s preparations for an attack on Poland at least a month before the invasion, but it not only refrained from participating in the campaign, but also refused the passage of German troops and the use of the railway lines in northern Hungary by them, even rejecting the offer of Slovakia by Hitler. Teleki was concerned not to lose whatever goodwill Britain still retained towards Hungary, as well as not wishing to turn on the Poles as historic allies. When Hitler’s onslaught began on 1 September, he declared Hungary a non-belligerent country and made arrangements for the sheltering of a hundred thousand refugees in Hungary. Many of the Polish soldiers and airmen found their way through Yugoslavia to Britain, where they joined the free Polish Legions and continued to fight, most notably perhaps in the Battle of Britain. Although Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was largely, to begin with, of symbolic significance, the Second World War had begun, and Hungary had, thus far, remained neutral.



Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz.

Nora Szekér (2013), Domonkos Szent-Iványi and his book, in Hungarian Review Vol IV, No 6. Budapest: Granasztói.

Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement -Excerpts: Descent into the Maelstom, 1936-41.

Posted April 1, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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