Magyar-British Relations in the Era of the Two World Wars, 1914-44: Documents and Debates, Part Three – Bárdossy and War   Leave a comment

Domokos Szent-Iványi:

The Hungarian Independence Movement

(ed. 2013)


Documentary Appendix, Part Three: Invasions, Declarations of War and the End of Hungarian Independence, April-December 1941

A. On the Attitude of the HIM to the Responsibility of the Nineteenth Century Powers:

The interwar period of 1918-39 had demonstrated what was to come: how Britain would lose her colonies and her position as a Great Power… We considered Britain to be on a slippery slope; of course we thought that Germany would be defeated in the end but we also thought, with a shudder, of the things to come… a dismembered and impoverished Europe under the domination or in the shadow of the Sickle and Hammer.

B. On Horthy, Hitler and British-Hungarian Relations over Yugoslavia:

001 (2)On the same day, Horthy wrote a letter to Hitler concerning the tragic death of Premier Teleki… Its main message was that, as Teleki’s suicide demonstrated, Hungary’s participation in a military action against Yugoslavia, with which it had a mutual friendship pact, was a serious problem of conscience for the country (eds.)… The attitude of Great Britain still held great sway over Hungary’s foreign policy, and as such Bárdossy “was making anxious enquiries of Barcza regarding his message of the second”

(‘The cable sent from London by Hungarian envoy György Barcza, dated 30 March, which Prime Minister Pál Teleki received one day before his death, and the contents of which contributed a great deal to his presumed suicide… said that should Hungary permit German troops to pass through its territory, British-Hungarian diplomatic relations would be ruptured, and Hungary’s participation in any military action, no matter on what grounds, might entail a declaration of war.’ – eds.).

On the 5th, “Barcza had to report that Cadogan had called him and conveyed to him a most serious warning in exactly the terms which Barcza had forecast; adding, however, that he could hardly believe that the Regent and the Hungarian Government would break their recent treaty of friendship”. And here the opportunism and vanity of Csáky and his right-hand man, Ullein-Reviczky, made their influence felt:

“Barcza might have had an answer of some sort if Csáky had not misled him on the real nature of the treaty, thus causing him, unwittingly, to mislead Cadogan. As things were, he seems to have found no resort but to wash his hands in innocence.” (Macartney).

C. On Bárdossy, Barcza and Eden:

Bárdossy inherited from Csáky a dangerous foreign policy as well as quite a few colleagues who had plenty of shortcomings, like Sztojáy, Ullein and others… The days following Bartha’s return from Berlin, were used by Bárdossy to instruct the Hungarian Ministers abroad, in particular those in London and Washington DC, that Hungary was only interested in the fate of the Magyars in the “Voivodina” and had no territorial ambitions of conquest.

Under intense pressure from the advancing German armies, the Yugoslav forces fell back and on the 7th Croatia was free of the military control of Belgrade. According to Hungarian accounts, on the same day British aircraft bombed some Hungarian towns and the British Minister in Budapest notified the Hungarian Government that Britain had broken off diplomatic relations with Hungary. On the 8th,

“Barcza received the same notifications from Mr Eden, who told him that ‘it would be an eternal shame on Hungary that she had attacked a country with which, only a few months previously, she had concluded a Treaty of Eternal Friendship. If a State was not master of its will and its actions., let it at least not conclude treaties that it then breaks. Teleki was the last Hungarian whom Britain had trusted. His successors should know that Britain would win the war and would remember this conduct of Hungary’s at the Peace Conference…”

D. On Hungary’s Entry into the War in Yugoslavia and Churchill’s Response, 10 April 1941:

“On the 9th, the German Minister in Budapest informed Bárdossy that he had been ordered to report immediately to Berlin in order to give information as to the situation in Hungary in consequence of the German-Yugoslav war. Erdmannsdorff then enquired about the Hungarian Government’s attitude. Bárdossy’s answer was that the Hungarian Government’s attitude had not changed; the condition ‘sine qua non’ for Hungary’s participation in the war against Yugoslavia being the declaration of independence of Croatia.

On the 10th a Council of Ministers was held which debated the texts and issued two proclamations of the Regent: an Army Order and a Proclamation to the Nation.

On the same day General Kvaternik as “acting Head of the State of Croatia” delivered a proclamation to the effect that Croatia “had become a free and independent State”. Consequently, the Hungarian Army crossed the former Hungaro-Yugoslav frontier.

Barcza also reported that through a confidant he was able to discover the attitude of Churchill to the events:

“Churchill’s reply came the same evening as follows:

‘The Hungarian Minister is really right: we English have been guilty of serious faults and omissions in the past. Hungary, after all, always openly maintained her claims to revision, and now, if the Hungarian troops confine themselves to occupying the territories that were formerly Hungarian, that is, humanly speaking, understandable.

‘I regret that, politically, it is impossible for me to do otherwise than break off diplomatic relations, but so long as Hungarian troops do not find themselves opposed in the field by British forces, there is really no need for a declaration of war. The Hungarians, incidentally, are very sympathetic people.’” (Macartney)

During the days of 9-19 April, Bárdossy in his exchange of cables with the Hungarian Ministers in London and Washington DC, tried in vain to have the attitude of the Hungarian Government accepted by the British and American Governments.

The military operations started by Hungary in the early hours of 11 April ended on 21st of the same month…

 … It was Hungary’s bad luck that, with the exception of Bárdossy, her leaders had too much faith in Great Britain’s willingness to help her and in Britain’s dominant position even after the devastating war. As to Britain’s attitude, it was summed up well by Churchill in a conversation in April 1941 with the Hungarian Minister:

“You Hungarians are so sympathetic, but for Heaven’s sake! Why do you side constantly and consistently with the losing party! I have anticipated where you will end in consequence of your policy; your constant compliance with the demands of Germany was a slippery slope on which – in such a long war – there is no stop and there cannot be any stop, either; just as I have already told you. Ultimately it is only the country’s honour and future that count. Because through Germany’s goodwill you have got back Upper Hungary and Transylvania you have sold yourself to the Germans and I can predict that you will have to pay a very high price for the territories regained by such methods. You do not know us and you do not know America, either. We shall win the war in spite of the fact that at the beginning things looked different. We shall win the war because we shall display unheard-of strength in manpower and material, but even in tenacity and character we shall be stronger than any other nation. You are our friend and we are your friends… I shall comply with your request: there will be no declaration of war. I cannot avoid a diplomatic rupture since I am forced to do so in consequence of a matter of principle…”

On the 24th Bárdossy addressed Parliament:

“His remarks on Foreign Policy were anything but servile, for he emphasised that Hungary proposed to play an independent role, and an important one, in international politics, but he showed clearly his rejection of Teleki’s policy of balance by his very strong insistence that it was only in co-operation with Germany and Italy, and by coordinating her Actions with theirs, that Hungary could play that role. During the following weeks, the inspired Press spared no effort to convince its readers that Britain had been the source of all evil on the Danube. Thank God, the very idea of a British victory was ridiculous; but if it had been imaginable, it would have been unspeakably disastrous for the world in general, and for Hungary in particular…”

E. On the Soviet Russian Crisis and the Outbreak of the German-Russian War, 22 June 1941:

In April Hitler told Horthy that his relations with the Soviet Union were healthy. He did not mention the possibility of a German-Russian war… the Germans continued repeatedly to assure the Hungarian Government that there was no danger of war. In May Hungarian military intelligence was able to acquire reliable information which revealed that considerable German forces were gathering in Poland and East Prussia. According to the reports of the General Staff, Germany was preparing a “show-down” with the Soviet Union.

Hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union started on the morning of 22 June, at 4 a.m. On 21 June, Hitler sent a personal letter to Admiral Horthy… Germany, having protected her rear with the Treaty of Non-Aggression, believed Britain and France would be defeated in a quick and decisive, “Einfronentkrieg”… Moscow was only too happy to assist Hitler in his efforts to settle his controversies with Britain and France. In addition, Moscow did not believe in a quick victory over Britain and France and was reckoning on a prolonged war that would impoverish Europe thus making it more receptive to Communist propaganda and ideology… All sources indicate that Stalin did not believe in an impending German attack. In addition, their plan was a prolonged war ending in the collapse of Germany as well as France and eventually of Britain…

F. On Hungary’s Entry into the War with the Soviet Union, 26 June:

In another memorandum, written and presented to the Government, Werth continued to urge Premier Bárdossy to take the necessary steps in order to establish close military co-operation between the German and Hungarian General Staffs. In the Council (of Ministers) Premier Bárdossy made known to the ministers the content of Werth’s latest memorandum… Berlin wanted from Hungary only defence; it had expressed no wish or desire for Hungary’s military participation in any operations which might be undertaken… It is highly interesting that the German Government did not ask Hungary to join in the war against Russia.

(On 23 June… Molotov summoned Hungarian envoy József Kristóffy and told him that the Soviet Union maintained neither claims on Hungary nor intentions to attack it. Should Hungary show neutrality, the Soviet Government would raise no objection to its territorial gains vis-à-vis Romania. The envoy immediately cabled the message to the Hungarian government. He received no reply. Bárdossy reported it neither to the Regent, nor the cabinet. At the cabinet session in the evening of 23 June it was decided that Hungary should break diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, but not declare war on it – eds.)

However, on the afternoon of 26 June an incident occurred which gave the two general staffs ample ammunition in their fight to get Hungary into the Second World War. On that day three aircraft appeared over the city of Kassa (Kosice in Slovak) and dropped some bombs causing loss of life and considerable damage to buildings. The Kassa incident took place at around 1 p.m. Two hours later an extraordinary Council of Ministers was already debating the consequences arising from the incident… Bárdossy’s conclusions were these:

‘…that the Germans had made up their minds to bring Hungary into the war. The Generals were on the Germans’ side, the Regent was under the influence of the Generals. Hungary therefore had no real choice; for she was not master of her own will… He did not mention the Kristóffy telegram. He simply announced that Soviet aircraft had bombed Kassa, thus creating a new situation.In his view Hungary should declare that… she regarded herself in a state of war with the USSR… All except Keresztes-Fischer were in favour of stating that in consequence of the attack on Kassa, Hungary regarded herself as being in a state of war with Russia.’

Bárczy, who took the minutes at the discussions, declared at the trial of Bárdossy in 1945/46 that Bárdossy had changed the original text omitting the opposition of three ministers to Bárdossy’s motion that the state of war with Soviet-Russia should be declared by the Council of Ministers.’

G. On the Strange Case of László Bárdossy:

He had little faith in Germany’s final victory but hoped that a stalemate between the powers would be reached, in which case Hungary could survive the cataclysm and expect to emerge in a better position than that of 1919-20. He had no faith whatsoever in the goodwill of Britain and the USA towards Hungary. His main conviction was that for the Western Democracies the maintenance of the system of the Little Entente, the permanent dismemberment of Hungary, was a permanent policy.

Finally, although Bárdossy’s declaration of hostilities was confined to the USSR, so that in theory it did not affect Hungary’s relations with the Western Powers, it was… impossible that the situation could be long maintained. Germany’s opponents were bound to end by uniting not only against Germany but also against her allies and satellites. War with Russia must sooner or later lead on to war with Britain and the USA.

H. On Hungarian Public Opinion:

The vast majority of the country shared the Government’s conviction that Russia would easily be defeated within a few weeks. Thus the question of what would be the consequences for Russia’s enemies if she proved victorious, or even if her resistance was protracted, did not seem to arise, and with this danger eliminated, it was also possible, even after Mr Churchill’s declaration identifying the cause of Britain with that of Russia, to regard as equally non-existent the risk of a conflict with the West – a prospect which the entire country would have regarded with unaltered dismay. It was regrettable that the West had so entangled itself, but the collapse of Russia would automatically right the position and break the chain before it could drag Hungary into war.

I. On the Replacement of Werth as Chief of Staff, 6 September:

Although Horthy had already promised to replace Werth, it was Bárdossy, after constantly “pestering” Horthy, who finally succeeded in ousting Werth from his position. Unluckily, when this happened, it was already too late. Werth was able to finish his evil work before he was replaced by Szombathelyi. After Hungary entered into war with Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which was followed by Britain’s ultimatum to Hungary on 29 November 1941, the importance of the General Staff lost much of its weight in connection with decisions in foreign matters, but by then Hungary was on the losing side.

J. On the Declaration of War on Hungary by Great Britain and the USA, 6-12 December 1941:

005On 29 November Britain, through the US Minister in Hungary, Pell, presented an ultimatum to Hungary. The text of the British Note is as follows:

“The Hungarian Government have for many months been pursuing aggressive military operations on the territory of the USSR, ally of Great Britain, in closest collaboration with Germany thus participating in the general European War and making a substantial contribution to the German war effort. In these circumstances His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom find it necessary to inform the Hungarian Government that unless by December five the Hungarian Government have ceased military operations and have withdrawn from all active participation in hostilities, His Majesty’s Government will have no choice but to declare the existence of a state of war between the two countries.”

Due to the British declaration of war on Hungary of December 6, of the German declaration of war on the United States of December 11… B
árdossy convened for the same day… an Extraordinary Council of Ministers… Hungary declared her solidarity with the Axis Powers in the spirit of the Pact. This would involve breaking off diplomatic relations with the USA but Bárdossy hoped this would be taken as sufficient… The Regent, to whom Bárdossy reported, concurred. That evening Bárdossy informed Mr Pell of the rupture of relations, and when asked ‘does this mean war?’ answered unequivocally, ‘No!’

The German and Italian Governments wanted a state of war declared… ‘on German initiative’. In fact, the German, Italian and Japanese Ministers had on that morning (12th December) sought out Bárdossy and informed him that it was the duty of the Powers adhering to the Three Power Pact, including Hungary, to make this declaration. Bárdossy told them what his government had decided, and what he had told Mr Pell, and again argued, amongst other things, the need for considering the position of the Magyars of America. They… warned him emphatically that ‘higher political interests necessitated a unanimous attitude of the European States’.

… He rang up Mr Pell and informed him that his formula of the previous day had after all meant that a state of war now existed between Hungary and the USA. Mr Pell, who had throughout shown the greatest possible patience and understanding, made a last effort to get out of Bárdossy something he could use in Hungary’s favour, and said:

‘I suppose you are doing this under heavy pressure from Germany, and that the declaration reflects no hostility on the part of the Hungarian people towards the people of the USA?’

But far from taking advantage of this opening – although he himself had a week before made a similar distinction between the British Government and the British people – Bárdossy answered indignantly: ‘Hungary is a sovereign and independent State… Her Government and her people are entirely at one.’

Actually, the USA did not, even now, declare war on Hungary… The Hungarian Government, however… treated itself as officially at war with the USA, as well as Great Britain…

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