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Chapter 2
Military Occupation of Hungary's Minority
Areas and Its Impact on the Local Hungarian
Population, November 1918-August 1919

In November 1918, the Western Allies were still without a coherent plan for the future of East Central Europe. Although from the very beginning of the war discussions on the subject were wide ranging, none of the proposed solutions was entirely satisfactory, and each promised to raise problems of enormous complexity.[1]

Concerns about the future were most acute in Hungary. Its population, long cut off from West European news sources, had no realistic view of the degree of hostile attitudes artificially built up against Hungary in Western capitals. During the war the only source of information from the West was the often contradictory public pronouncements of the Western Powers, as filtered through a censored press. But it was difficult to discern which were wartime propaganda and which were expressions of actual policy. Fears of massive territorial losses were mixed with the not entirely unfounded hope that once military considerations ceased to influence political decisions, perspectives on the region might undergo a radical change and old biased assumptions about Hungary and, along with it, plans based upon them, might yet be revised. The rapid changes in East Central Europe, the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy and the social revolution in Hungary, encouraged such a view. Moreover, the new government of Mihály Károlyi was genuinely friendly toward national minorities. During the previous decades many of the new leaders had fought for complete social and political equality of all peoples in the Dual Monarchy. Oszkár Jászi, the new minister of national minorities, was a long-time advocate of an imperial federation. In 1918 Jászi was prepared to grant extensive cultural autonomy, complete political equality, and extensive local administrative autonomy to all national minorities within Hungary.[2] The Károlyi government hoped that at least some of their former allies among the national minorities with whom they fought the long and bitter struggle against the prewar political and social order, would appreciate the fundamentally new spirit of the regime. Unlike the Successor States, which subsequently signed treaties guaranteeing minimum protection to the national minorities only under Western duress, the Károlyi regime offered to protect fully the rights of the minorities out of conviction. In addition. the planned extensive social and economic reforms would have equally benefited the lower classes among the nationalities. Then, too, the false hope was entertained that some of the minorities might after all realize that separation from Hungary did not mean independence and self-rule, but incorporation into a larger state where the former minorities of Hungary would once again be the ruled minority. Indeed, that is what happened. Slovaks and Ruthenians came to live under Czech tutelage, Croatians and Slovenes under Serbian domination, and the Romanians of Transylvania under that of the conservative leaders of the Regat. Thus, the Károlyi government believed that with its democratic and progressive social program as the basis, a freely negotiated settlement between the Hungarians and the minorities was still possible. Even Károlyi's most persistent opponents had to acknowledge that he was perhaps the only man who could preserve the country's territorial integrity or at least negotiate a fair settlement.

The Károlyi government's foreign policy options, however, were extremely limited. The hoped-for negotiations with the minorities failed to materialize. The only remaining choice, if the territorial integrity of the country was to be preserved, lay between resumption of hostilities against the Great Powers and their East Central European allies and a trust in the good will of the West. The first option was never considered as a realistic possibility. The Károlyi cabinet took its principles seriously and opposed a resolution of differences through a test of strength. Then, too, the Hungarian Army ceased to be an effective fighting force g within a few days after the armistice. Soldiers deserted their units by the thousands and flocked home from the fronts in total disarray. Peasant soldiers, excited by the news of the imminent land reform, hurried home to their villages. Others plunged into the revolution in the major cities. Even if an army could have been raised, Hungary would have had to face enemies on three sides.

It was of paramount importance to Károlyi to gain recognition for his government and to dissociate the new regime from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. As one of its last acts the Austro-Hungarian army's Supreme Command signed the Padua Armistice Agreement (November 3, 1918). As far as the Allies were concerned Hungary was still bound by this agreement, even though it was signed after Hungary's declaration of independence. The terms of the Armistice specified a reduction of the Austro-Hungarian army to twenty divisions and established a zone of occupation.[3] The most important consideration at that time for the Allied Supreme War Council was a possible attack on Germany across Austrian territory. The Armistice Agreement, therefore. was specific on the military questions and did not provide for a military occupation of Hungary preliminary to peace negotiations. This omission seemed advantageous to Hungary, but was without practical consequences. The Allied Balkan Army and military units of the Successor States continued their advance and crossed the Hungarian borders. On November 7, therefore, Károlyi and Jászi, heading a Hungarian delegation traveled to Belgrade to negotiate a halt to the occupation of the country with the commander of the Armee de l,Orient, General Franchet d,Esperey. Such negotiations would have also gained, at least, a de facto recognition for the Károlyi government. On November 13, the representatives of the Hungarian government finally signed the Belgrade Military Conventions Agreement.[6] Hungary agreed to reduce its army to eight divisions and recognized the right of the Allies to occupy all places of strategic importance in the country. The Hungarian government also undertook to evacuate its troops behind a line of demarcation, roughly fixed at a line starting at the upper Szamos Valley in the east, running south to the Maros River, then along this river to its junction with the Tisza, and from there in a westerly direction just south of Szeged, and north of Baja and Pécs to the Dráva River, and along this line to the western border of Hungary.[5] The establishment of the zone opened the way to a legal occupation of some of the territories claimed by the Romanian and Serbian governments. No provisions were made for the establishment of a similar zone of occupation in the north, thus raising hopes that at least the Slovak territories might still be retained by Hungary. The military demarcation line, however, was not to be considered the new boundaries of the country. In theory, at least, even those areas that came under foreign occupation were to be considered Hungarian territories until the signing of the peace treaty. On this issue the terms of the Armistice were explicit:

Civil administration will remain in the hands of the Government. In actual fact only the police and gendarmerie will be retained in the evacuated zone, being indispensable to the maintenance of order, and also such men as are required to insure the safety of the railways.... The Allies shall not interfere with the internal administration of affairs in Hungary.[6]


That is, Budapest still remained the legal authority for all parts of the country, and the Hungarian officials were to remain at their posts until the signing of the peace treaty. The Hungarian government understood that the demarcation lines established at Belgrade would remain in force until a treaty could be negotiated. But the Successor States were anxious to extend their physical control to all those territories that they wished to incorporate into their respective states even if this necessitated crossing the line of demarcation and incurring the displeasure of the Western Powers. The small powers soon realized that the lack of unity among the Great Powers worked in their favor, and that it was possible to force the hands of their western allies by simply confronting them with faits accomplis. Only the French had any military force in East Central Europe. In the absence of a sufficient counterforce the small powers could act boldly with impunity. They also realized that any delay in occupying the claimed territories might jeopardize their chances at the final settlement. They had to act before Hungary could recover from the collapse of the monarchy and mend her diplomatic fences with the Great Powers. They had to act while the situation was fluid and before East Central Europe solidified into a system less favorable to their goals.

Serbian Occupation of the Southern Counties

Events coalesced most rapidly in the South Slav districts of the former monarchy. The idea of a Yugoslav state either within or independent of the Habsburg empire had an almost universal appeal among the Croats and Slovenes. As early as May 1917 the South Slav delegation to the Austrian Reichsrat declared that they fully intended to form a separate South Slav state, but still under Habsburg sovereignty. This plan was endorsed even by Emperor Karl.[7] By October 1918, however, popular sentiment favored secession from Austria-Hungary, and remaining independent of Serbia. On October 5-6, the National Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs was established in Zagreb. It soon transformed itself into a de facto government of the South Slav population of the empire. On October 19, that is, well before the termination of hostilities, the council issued a provisional constitution for the projected state, and on October 29 declared its independence. The Serbian government of Nikola Pasic viewed these activities with extreme suspicion, since these plans ran counter to Serbia's declared war aims. Serbia intended to seize the leadership of the South Slav population and she pursued this goal with single-minded determination.

Serbia's expansionist postwar designs became clear in December 1914, when she announced that her goal was not only the liberation of the conquered Serbian territories, but also of all South Slav areas of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Corfu Declaration (1917), signed jointly by Pasic and the emigre Yugoslav Committee of London, reaffirmed this goal and left no doubt that the new state would be led by the Serbian Karageorgevich dynasty.

Confrontation between the Serbian government and the Zagreb National Council, however, was avoided. Although the Serbian government recognized the legitimacy of the Zagreb authorities on November 8, the inability of the latter to raise troops in her defense and to maintain order in the countryside forced abandonment of dreams about an independent Croatian and Slovenian state. Only with the aid of regular Serbian army units could the revolutionary momentum in the country be checked. The peasantry, taking matters into their own hands, were seizing the large estates, frightening all propertied people, while soldiers returning from the front created a general atmosphere of terror. Faced with anarchy internally and, perhaps more importantly, with an external danger in the West, where Italian troops commenced the occupation of Dalmatia, the Zagreb National Council requested, on November 4, the dispatch of Serbian troops. The presence of those troops sealed the fate of an independent Croatian and Slovenian state. On November 24, the Council decided to recognize the inevitable by voting for union with Serbia, which led to formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1.[8]

In the first days of November the most urgent problem of the Serbian government, however, was not the future of Slovenes and Croats, but that of the Voivodina. The Voivodina as a separate entity had no historical antecedent; the name itself came into use only after the war. It was to designate the territories ceded to Yugoslavia by Hungary, including the Bánat, the Bácska, and parts of Baranya county. With its highly mixed population it was doubtful that Serbia's claims to all of the Voivodina could be substantiated on the basis of nationality. If the Great Powers ordered a plebiscite in the area a vote favorable to Hungary was most likely, since the Hungarian and German minorities together formed an absolute majority of the population.[9] But even the attitude of the local Slavic population was ambiguous. With the outbreak of the revolution in Budapest, however, the old Hungarian administration lost control of the population. Power passed to the newly formed nationality councils. Their debates clearly indicated that the population was thoroughly divided about the future of this territory. Many, and not only the Hungarians, argued in favor of remaining within Hungary, while others were divided between the supporters of Belgrade and of the Zagreb authorities.

In view of this situation the haste with which the Serbian government acted is understandable. It was particularly anxious to occupy the Voivodina. On November 3, therefore, the Serbian Regent, Aleksander, announced Serbia's intention to occupy southern Hungary and on November 7, the day Károlyi arrived in Belgrade, the first units of the Serbian army crossed the Danube. Serbia sought to exploit the situation that was created by the negotiations between Károlyi and d'Esperey. The pretense could be maintained that until the signing of a new armistice Hungary was still technically in a state of war. Those territories that came under Serbian control before the date of armistice could be held without restrictions simply by the right of conquest. On the other hand, areas occupied after that date would have had to remain Hungarian territories, under Hungarian civilian administration until the signing of a peace treaty. 'deg. Available Serbian forces were insufflcient to secure the extensive area of the Voivodina. The First and Second Serbian Armies, composed of seven divisions, reached the SaveDanube line on November 1, but only three of these divisions could be used for occupation of Hungarian territories. The Serbian offlcers drove their troops with utmost haste toward the proposed demarcation line and by avoiding conflicts with the retreating Hungarian and German units and through bypassing major population centers, Serbian forces reached the line before November 13. On the day of the signing of the Belgrade military conventions, Zombor, Szabadka, and Baja were occupied; on the 14th Pécs; on the 20th Temesvár.[11]

Retreat of the Hungarian population began even before the Serbian troops crossed the frontiers. As in so many other parts of the country, with the collapse of Hungarian authority, the area sank into anarchy, and the threat of violence reached everyone. Returning soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army, Germans, Slavs, or Hungarians, regardless of their nationality, were often forced to fend for themselves through plunder. Fully armed roving bands of soldiers, the "Green Companies," formed from some of the 200,000 South Slav deserters, suddenly emerged from their forest hiding places.[12] In a mood of triumphant self-assertion, seeking revenge for alleged past wrongs, they struck terror in the hearts of the Hungarian population. Landless peasants also added to the general sense of insecurity by seizing land and burning down manor houses. Wild and exaggerated rumors fueled fears generated by actual acts of terror and had a considerable psychological impact upon the Hungarian population. The most intimidated groups, the upper and middle classes, first withdrew to their homes, seeking to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Estate owners, wealthier individuals, and higher officials, the most likely targets of terror, fled with their valuables toward the safety of inner Hungary. In many villages only the peasants remained. County officials, notaries, gendarmes, teachers, and even priests fled. Where they were caught they were rudely treated and at times even murdered. Similarly, estate overseers and managers also found it advisable to flee. According to Oszkár Jászi, in the first few days of November alone. about one-third of the notaries were put to flight.[13]The number of fleeing notaries was much higher in the minority areas. Tibor Hajdu estimated that in all about a third of all notaries were chased away in the Hungarian areas, a half from Slovak villages, and nine-tenths from the Romanian regions.[14]

After the arrival of Serbian troops the new local commanders, ignoring the terms of the Belgrade Military Convention, subordinated public administration to the Serb-Croat-Slovene state. In most places this led to the dismissal of most Hungarian civilian and police officials. Only in the predominantly Hungarian cities, such as Pécs, Baja, and Temesvár, did the old of ficials refuse to leave their posts and were allowed to remain temporarily, but these were exceptions. Ultimately none of these cities remained within the territory of Yugoslavia.[15]

Physical resistance to the Serbian occupation was almost nonexistent in the Voivodina. In one area, however, the Muraköz, or Mura District, the Hungarian government forcefully opposed separation of the region from the country. It had to be taken by force. This triangular-shaped territory in western Hungary, between the Mura and Dráva Rivers and the Austrian border, had always formed a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. In early November the authority of the Zagreb National Council was not extended to this area, although the Council maintained its claims to the district by virtue of the nationality of its population. The Belgrade Military Convention also left the Muraköz under Hungarian control. Serbia was reluctant to violate openly the terms of the Armistice, but she approved of sending irregular units into Muraköz. After an unsuccessful invasion in the latter part of November, a larger, 4000-man "volunteer,, army crossed the Dráva during the last days of 1918 and accomplished the occupation of the Muraköz without much resistance. [16]

The primary motivating force for departure of the Hungarian population from the Bánát, Bácska, Baranya, and Muraköz during 1918 and the early part of 1919 was fear for safety of life. Most of those who decided to leave left in a moment of panic, with little thought given to their economic or social losses. During the last two months of 1918 at least 5,000 persons left, while during the first three months of 1919 perhaps three times as many. The number of those who left immediately after the occupation of the southern regions, however, might be substantially higher.

Occupation of Northern Hungary

Gaining physical control of Slovakia by the new Czechoslovak government proved to be a far more difficult undertaking. Unlike Serbia, Czechoslovakia did not possess a seasoned army ready to exploit the chaos created by the military collapse of the monarchy. The Prague government had only a few hastily gathered, ill-equipped and poorly led units of volunteers at its disposal. Its best troops, the Czech legionnaires, were still in Siberia.[17] Until their return, or until a regular army could be formed and trained, it was not possible to think seriously about a military campaign even against the limited resistance of a weak foe.

Nevertheless, on November 11, a small army of approximately 4000 men began to probe the Hungarian defenses in the northwestern corner of the country. The Károlyi government considered these military moves totally illegal and, therefore, ordered a counterattack by its own troops and sent strong reinforcements to Pozsony and Nyitra county.[18] With these moves, as well as with a note of protest to the Prague government, Károlyi intended to signal his conviction that, although Hungary abided by the terms of the Belgrade Convention, it was not willing to permit an unauthorized occupation of territories beyond the demarcation line. The promise of military resistance by Hungary forced Czechoslovakia to halt temporarily any further advance of its troops, while an alternate method was worked out.

The Slovaks themselves offered only limited help toward achievement of Czech objectives. Separatism among Slovaks in Hungary had only a brief history and was limited mostly to a small circle. The idea of uniting Czechs and Slovaks was recent in origin and gained a limited popularity only toward the end of the war. It was much more readily accepted by Czech and Slovak emigres than by Slovaks living in Hungary.[19] For this reason, the Czech leadership received with relief the October 30 declaration of union between Czechs and Slovaks made by the hastily convened Slovak National Council at Turócszentmárton. The Council was not genuinely representative; nonetheless, the declaration strengthened Czech legal claims to Upper Hungary and was of great propaganda value. But it did not bring about an immediate change of administration; Hungarian control of the area remained unaffected by it. Moreover, it did not accurately reflect Slovak ambivalence about union with the Czechs. The declaration was made, on the whole, by a random collection of politicians representing the western parts of future Slovakia and the conservative to moderate political factions. Most Slovak politicians, however, even those who were leaning toward union, still hesitated.

In view of Czech military weakness the inability to compel Hungary to evacuate Upper Hungary at the time of the Belgrade negotiations was doubly damaging . The Czech government feared that any significant delay in the occupation of the area might permanently impair the cause of the Czechoslovak state. It was well known that Jászi, the Hungarian minister of nationalities, promised complete autonomy to the Slovaks, which indeed was more than the Czechs themselves were thinking of granting. Any delay in occupation might have provided the necessary time for the anti-Hungarian sentiment of early November to subside and for the negotiation of a satisfactory agreement between Hungarian and Slovak leaders.

The revolutionary mood of the Slovak peasantry only added to the sense of Czech urgency. The danger was real, for the more democratic and socially more progressive Hungarian government was in a good position to convince the lower classes that their economic future was brighter in Hungary than in a Czechoslovak state dominated by propertied bourgeois classes.

The burden of forcing an immediate evacuation of northern Hungary fell to Czech diplomacy. Its principal objectives were to keep the Károlyi government in complete diplomatic isolation , and , simultaneously, to gain the support of the Western Powers for the creation of a northern zone of military occupation. In both of these efforts Edvard Benes was ultimately successful. A key weapon in the arsenal of Czech diplomacy was its easy access to Western leaders and public opinion. Unlike Hungarian leaders, Benes was keenly aware of the subtle changes in the Western political climate and recognized the rapid ascendance of conservative opinion. In his diplomatic and press campaign to discredit the Károlyi government, therefore , he stressed the radical character of the democratic revolution in Hungary, which, in his view, was only a prelude to a Bolshevik revolution . Conversely, Czechoslovakia was painted as the only safe bastion of capitalism. To prevent the spread of Bolshevism to the West an immediate Czech occupation of Upper Hungary was necessary.[20] Anti-Hungarian feelings were also fanned by growing Western anti-Semitism, which was closely linked to a fear of Bolshevism. Western reaction to Károlyi's appointment of Róza Bédy-Schwimmer as minister to Switzerland clearly illustrated this. The French and other Western diplomats were outraged by what they called "this perfidious,' and "ultra-democratic" act of Károlyi of sending as his country's representative not only a radical Jew but a feminist woman.[21] Thus, in a way, Hungary was to lose much of its territory because of the conservative, undemocratic spirit of its past governments and was isolated because of its democratic and progressive new regime.

Not surprisingly, given the strongly anti-Hungarian mood in Paris, the revolutionary government of Hungary was not recognized by the Allies. Already in mid-1918, the British adopted the policy of not treating with Károlyi because '' of a grave danger . . . of our alienating the only straightforward enemies of Germany within the Monarchy.''[22] meaning the nationalities and especially the Czechs. The policy evidently remained in force even after the end of the war.

Károlyi, who wished to establish personal contacts with leaders of the Great Powers, more particularly to plead the case of the young Hungarian democracy with President Woodrow Wilson, was refused even an entry permit to France. The French government simply declared that it'' could not under any circumstances recognize the Károlyi Government, which represented a tenth part of the population of Hungary. ,,[23] The French also cooperated with Prague in forcing Hungary to evacuate Upper Hungary. Benes and Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Commander of the Allies, bypassing the other Western Powers, drew up an agreement which extended the terms of the Belgrade Convention to include Upper Hungary in the area that was to be occupied by the Western Powers or their eastern allies. The note ordering the evacuation of "Slovak territories'', was delivered on December 3 to the Hungarian government by Lieutenant Colonel Fernand Vix, the head of the Allied Military Mission in Budapest. This note, however, failed to define the boundary of Slovakia.[24]

On November 25, the Slovak politician Milan Hodza was sent to Budapest as the representative of Czechoslovakia. Hodza, though not authorized by Prague to negotiate the boundary question, nevertheless did so with the support of the Slovak National Council.[25]

On December 6, an agreement was worked out between Hodza and the Károlyi government on the details of the northern zone of occupation. The area that was to be evacuated included nearly all of the predominantly Slovak-populated territories. except in the eastern tip of Upper Hungary, but excluded some mixed or purely Hungarian areas demanded by Benes at the Paris Peace Conference.

By the beginning of December, two Czech divisions, commanded by Italian officers, were ready for service in Slovakia. Thus, when the agreement was reached on the demarcation line in Budapest, these troops began to move forward, cautiously following the withdrawing Hungarian Army. By December 12, Nyitra was occupied and nearly everywhere in western Slovakia the Czech troops reached the Hodza demarcation line. Within two weeks central and most of eastern Slovakia were also occupied. with the exception of those towns where the Hungarian pOpulatiOn. withOut the consent of the Budapest government. Organized forces to resist the loss of their homeland.

On December 24, Lieutenant Colonel Vix presented Károlyi with a second note containing a new line of demarcation, which was defined as the ''historic boundaries'' of the Czecho-Slovak state. The new line was to run from the west along the Danube to the Ipoly River, to the town of Rimaszombat. from there toward the east to the Ung, and then along that river to the old frontiers. That is, roughly along the line that ultimately became the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In his reply Károlyi rejected the demand to withdraw, stating that no such geographic or political entity called Slovakia ever existed, that northern Hungary had always formed an integral part of Hungary itself. Moreover, he argued, over 39 percent of the population to be transferred was non-Siovak .[26]

Nevertheless, Károlyi had no other option than to accept. Those army units rushed to reinforce the Hungarian defenses in the north in the first part of November had by the end of December largely melted away. Evacuation of the remaining Hungarian army units was completed peacefully also by the end of December. Only in a few areas was momentary resistance attempted. Thus, on December 26, Eperjes was occupied, on December 29, Kassa, and on New Year's day 1918, after several days of Hungarian military resistance, the future capital of Slovakia, Pozsony.[27]

Publication of the terms of the Belgrade agreement in early November had given a ray of hope to the Hungarian population of the northern districts. The hope ended when military operations commenced and the demands of the Prague government became known. Hope soon turned to bitterness over the realization that the Hungarian government was unable to put up a fight, and then to panic as the Czech occupation forces arrived. Only a few diehards thought of resistance without government help. In town after town politicians of the old regime, county and local officials, or demobilized officers tried to mobilize the Hungarian population for resistance. Without exception, their efforts failed. The war-weary population turned a deaf ear to their appeals; the people could think only of their personal safety. Those who feared the arrival of the Czech troops, though sympathizing with the idea of resistance, were at the moment hastily organizing their own flight to central Hungary.

Typical of the feeble attempts to organize volunteer armies of resistance, were the efforts of a group led by György Szmrecsányi. On October 31, the day of the revolution in Budapes at Érsekujvár in the Nyitra Valley, the mayor of the town began to organize a small security force. Most of the three hundred volunteers came from the ranks of the local police and demobilized army officers. At first they concentrated on arresting Czech and Slovak agitators and on subduing the restless population of the surrounding villages.[28] This group soon merged into a larger organization called the National Defense Movement. It was commanded by György Szmrecsányi, a member of the prewar Hungarian parliament, representing Árva county and a former high-sheriff (Föispan) of Pozsony county. Optimistically, Szmrecsányi had envisaged the establishment of an army of 50,000 men, to be drawn from the Hungarian population of the most exposed western regions of northern Hungary. His aims were, first, expulsion of the invading forces from northern Hungary and, second, overthrow of the liberal government of Karolyi.[29] Without authorization he declared martial law, ordered to arms all men between the ages of twenty and forty, and sent his representatives to the villages to aid recruitment. Even more ambitiously, he sought to create an umbrella organization for the entire Hungarian population of northern Hungary that, in effect, would have functioned as an independent government. Such an organization was deemed necessary to synchronize the national resistance in the endangered Nyitra, Pozsony, Komárom, Bars, and Hont counties. It also would have rallied all the counterrevolutionaries to his side.

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