This Week in History   Leave a comment

Twenty-five years ago…

 

This week, twenty-five years ago, on 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, including a thinly veiled threat of invasion, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus since just before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and it was only the beginning.

Left: Demonstrations in Hungary
Right: East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, drive into Austria and on to West Germany, to the fury of the DDR Government.

 

Seventy years ago…

001

This week seventy years ago (1944), following the appearance of three Soviet units in Transylvania, the Hungarian Government and Regency held five meetings in the capital, followed by a meeting in Berlin between the Hungarian Chief of General Staff and Hitler:

7 September: Two meetings of conference of intimate advisors at the Palace.

8     ”           : Council of Ministers

10   ”           : Conference of Privy Councillors

11   ”           : Council of Ministers

12   ”           : Interview between General Vörös and Hitler in Berlin.

On the last of these dates, Red Army units crossed the Carpathians, and the following day the Romanian Armistice was registered with the United Nations, which had just come into being as a result of the ongoing Dumbarton Oaks Conference between the USSR, the USA, Great Britain and China.

At a conference of Horthy’s most intimate advisors, held in the Royal Palace in Buda on 7 September, the Regent informed those attending – Lakatos, Csatay, Henyey, Vörös, Vattay and Ambrózy – that he had taken the decision to sue for an armistice. All those present agreed that this would be an unconditional surrender. At the same time, a request would be made that Romanian and Yugoslavian troops would not take part in Hungary’s military occupation, and that Hungarian police and officials would to be left in their posts. The country’s defection from the Axis camp would be preceded by an ultimatum for the Germans to evacuate Hungary within forty-eight hours.

Later, in the evening, however, at another Conference in the Palace, with the same persons present, the Regent accepted Csatay’s idea to send an immediate ultimatum to the Germans, to ask them to immediately send five armoured divisions to Hungary to stop the Soviet advance. If these forces did not arrive within twenty-four hours, Hungary would be obliged to sue for an armistice. The unanimous opinion of those present was that the Germans would be unable to meet this demand and that Hungary would therefore be free to leave the war without prejudicing her honour.

However, the following day, these ministers were surprised when the Lakatos Government received information from the Germans that four divisions were already on their way to Hungary and that further forces would follow shortly. Under these changed circumstances, the Hungarian Government again postponed its break-away action. At the same time, they received a report that the previous request of the Hungarian Government to the Allies, that the country be occupied as soon as possible only by Western troops, was quite impossible for them to agree to. Domokos Szent-Iványi later commented:

While the Government and Horthy were continuing their vacillating and irresolute policy, wavering between hope and fear, the Left and Right were busy redoubling their activities… I was greatly displeased with the situation; firstly, I disliked to the utmost the behaviour of most of the self-styled and self-proclaimed resistance leaders, and in general, the continuous boasting of those who believed themselves knowledgeable of the situation. Under the circumstances confidentiality could not be maintained, and even secret… discussions, like those in the Crown Councils and councils of the Privy Councillors… became subject to close examination by the Germans and the Russians not long after they had taken place.


According to Szent-Iványi, there were quite a number of “shrewd” operators  in government circles as well as in Parliament who found it opportune to carry several party membership cards, belonging at one and the same time to the fascist Arrow-Cross, the Smallholders’, the Communist, the Social Democratic and the pro-German Volksbund parties. While all this political and governmental wrangling was going on, the Red Army was advancing into Transylvania, so that by 9th September their units had already reached Temesvár and the Yugoslav Bánát. The following day the Conference of Privy Councillors took place in the Palace, attended by three ex-premiers, one of the Keepers of the Crown, three retired generals, representatives of all the political parties and religious denominations in Transylvania, the three generals and ministers of the Lakatos government, including the Premier himself. After assessing the military situation, the Transylvanian representatives, Bánffy and Teleki, proposed a resolution, already accepted in their territory, that Hungary must ask immediately for an armistice with the Allies and allow the territory to be occupied by the Red Army without resistance. The Romanians must then be treated as allies. The resolution was in line with the standpoint of the Regent, Bethlen, Kánya and others to sue for an unconditional surrender to the Allies, including the Soviet Union, and it was unopposed by any others present. Therefore, Lakatos was instructed to call a Council of Ministers for the next day, to agree the resolution on a constitutional basis.

On the morning of the eleventh, Hitler was told of the outcome of the meeting of the Crown Council. He commented on the behaviour of the participants, whom he referred to as the Old Gentlemen in a very contemptuous way. Not surprisingly, the pro-German element among the Ministers responded strongly to the proposition, arguing for the continuation of the war in co-operation with the Reich. Others spoke of the practical difficulties involved in a breakaway under the current circumstances. They used the argument that the current Cabinet, having given the Germans an ultimatum to send more troops a few days earlier and had it accepted, could not honorably surrender. They would have to resign for another Cabinet to be formed who would then take this action. Bárcy, the State Secretary, accepted this last point and said that he wanted a new Cabinet appointed, composed of independent, courageous men who had not asked for new armoured divisions. Five other Council members agreed with him in this view.

This represented a turning point for the Regent, who now decided to act independently from his Government. In the meantime, however, he reluctantly accepted the decision of the Council of Ministers and again postponed the decision to surrender to the Allies. Although Lakatos tendered the resignation of the Cabinet, Horthy refused to accept it. The opportunity for Hungary to leave the war was lost with this decision. At this point, Hitler, having again been secretly briefed about the meeting of the Council of Ministers, sent a message to Budapest that he wanted to arrange an interview with the Hungarian Chief of General Staff, General Vörös. He left Budapest on the twelfth for the Führer’s HQ in a special plane sent by Hitler. The general took with him another letter from the Regent containing the requests for assurances that no further Hungarian territories would be evacuated without previous consultation with the Hungarian Government, that effective military assistance would be given to Hungary in order to stop the advance of the Red Army and that the Regent would be informed immediately if Berlin entered into negotiations with the enemy powers.

In the event, Hitler’s interview with the general turned into a two-hour rant by the dictator, who knew exactly what had happened in both the Privy Council and the Council of Ministers in Budapest. Himmler, Keitel and Guderian were also present, listening in silence. Germany, said Hitler, would be defended to the last drop of blood: He who jumps overboard, man or nation, will assuredly drown. Vörös reported to the Regent that he deduced from Hitler’s words that he was mistrustful of the whole leadership of the Hungarian State. However, the German leader also repeated that Hungary would be defended in the same sense as East Prussia. Not only would the whole of Transylvania be freed within a short period, but a great offensive would follow to liberate the whole of Romania as well. Indeed, he would soon be putting the seceret weapons into effect, which would end the war for good and for all.

A hundred years ago…

The Battle of the Marne, 5-10 September

The Germans continued their advance, but were weakened as some of their divisions were withdrawn and moved to East Prussia to counter the Russian threat. There was a crucial change in direction: instead of continuing westwards, to come around Paris from the west, General Alexander von Kluck, of the German First Army, turned his troops to pass to the east of the capital. The allies saw this as an opportunity to stop retreating and to counter-attack. Von Kluck realised his right flank was exposed and turned his army westwards but in doing so, opened up a large gap between his troops and the German Second Army, which was further to the east. The Allies exploited the gap. The Germans, not wishing to be encircled, retreated. Casualties were high, around half a million in total. After this crucial battle, which saved France from defeat, the German chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, suffered a breakdown. There was now little chance of the Germans making this a short war.

The Battle of the Marne was not a foregone conclusion, and at one point French reinforcements were required urgently. To get these reserve troops to the front line quickly, Paris taxis were requisitioned, with each vehicle transporting five soldiers to the battlefield. The French regarded the saving of the capital, and therefore the avoidance of a quick defeat in the war, as a miracle. The Germans had got to within twenty-five miles of Paris. Forward parties could see the Eiffel Tower through binoculars. A third of the capital’s citizens fled and the Government moved, temporarily, to Bordeaux.

 

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