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The Establishment of the National Army

Success or failure of the counterrevolutionary movement was predicated on the strength of its military forces. The newly established army had three basic aims: to defeat communism in Hungary; to restore the prewar elite to power and to revive the nobility's lost self-confidence; and, finally, to regain the thousand-year frontiers of the Kingdom of Saint Stephen. This last goal, as long as the Hungarian forces at Szeged were under French supervision had to be de-emphasized, but for the refugees from the Successor States it was the main reason for joining the National Army.

The fact that this was a class army of the nobility was immediately and widely recognized. In it, the gentry mentality dominated and trappings and symbols of gentry power and virtues were immediately restored. To mention but one example: Gömbös's first act as undersecretary of defense was to reestablish dueling and the noble code of honor in the army. Horthy whole heartedly approved this move, remarking, " As long as the laws of the state fail to protect completely the manly honor of a gentleman, he should and he must be free to resort to illegal weapons."[50 ]This principle of legitimacy of illegal means at times of crisis was not limited to duelling alone, but became the governing principle of Horthy and his army.

The goals and the prevailing mentality in the army necessarily limited its appeal to a narrow segment of society, principally to the upper classes, to the gentry, and specifically to the refugee nobles, officials and officers. At first, immediately after the establishment of the first Szeged government, broad mass participation in the army was not deemed essential. As long as it was believed that the French would move against the Communist regime, it seemed that a token force would be sufficient to accompany the French.[51]

It soon became apparent, however, that the French were unwilling to spill the blood of their own soldiers as long as other means were available. Various French officers made it clear to the Szeged government that if the Hungarians wished to challenge the supremacy of the Budapest government they had to do it with their own resources, though the French held out the possibility of some material aid once the offensive was under way.[52] In view of the French ban on expansion of Horthy's army, such an offensive was not likely.

Organization of a large invasion force, within the limited confines of Szeged, proved to be an arduous task. For various reasons the size of the counterrevolutionary army remained small. First, the French refused to permit expansion of the army and rejected appeals for arms until after the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Also, the limited financial resources of the Szeged government seriously handicapped the recruiting efforts. Finally, the manpower itself was lacking for organization of a larger army.

The French commanders, in spite of repeated requests, refused to permit the expansion of the army beyond the original officially approved force of 1300 officers and men. Political considerations played the most important part in this refusal; but the French were also reluctant to permit the creation of an army that was larger than their own. Nevertheless, by August 1919 the counterrevolutionary army was surreptitiously expanded well beyond its official size.

By controlling much of the local military supplies, namely the weapons seized at Szeged after the Communist takeover at Budapest, the French acquired additional leverage over the National Army. Without these munitions the Hungarians could not arm their forces, nor launch an invasion against the will of the French.[53]

[]The financial weakness of the Szeged government was only slightly less important in limiting the size of the army. The Szeged government was able to maintain itself financially only with the greatest difficulties. Since its tax revenues were limited, it had to finance most of its operations from contributions by private individuals, from those threemillion crowns that Count Teleki had brought from the Bankgasse booty as a peace offering to the Szeged group, from the two million crowns contributed by the Sékely National Council, and from loans taken from various sources. The twenty-four million crowns collected was woefully inadequate for maintaining, let alone expanding, the National Army.[54] To maintain this counterrevolutionary army was more expensive than usual, since regular pay and good food were major incentives to many of the volunteers, and especially because of the high proportion of officers who insisted on drawing regular-officers' salaries.

The most important problem, however, was shortage of manpower. Since the French military command prohibited a regular draft within its jurisdiction, the White Army had to be made up entirely of volunteers. This seriously handicapped all efforts to expand and limited the volunteers to those who hoped to benefit from participating in such an endeavor. It almost completely excluded all workers, peasants, and much of the local middle class. Even a cursory examination of the social composition of the army reveals its extremely narrow class base of middle- and upper-class refugees, army and especially cavalry officers, members of the police and gendarmerie, and to a lesser degree the nationalist middle class students, teachers and state officials.

On June 5, 1919, Horthy issued his order for recruiting this army from the trustworthy elements in the country.[55] Count Aladár Zichy was appointed head of the recruiting committee. Contrary to his committee's expectations and to its deep disappointment, the local population failed to respond in the expected numbers, in spite of all the patriotic appeals and even of some coercion.[56] Especially disappointing was the response of the landed peasantry, to whom the army leaders made special appeals. For it was this stratum, in fact the only one, which the counterrevolutionary leaders believed to be sufficiently trustworthy and conservative to provide a mass base of support in the struggle against communism. Father István Zadravecz, a member of the recruiting campaign, bitterly complained about the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the peasantry of Szeged.[57]

[] The total of 6568 individuals heard the call for volunteers, a far smaller number than originally anticipated. Less than ten percent belonged to the peasantry, and most were from the ranks of refugee peasants. At one of the smaller recruiting stations out of 281 volunteers only 21 were peasants. At the largest station 3320 persons signed up to serve, but only 147 were peasants. The native population of Szeged, with the notable exception of the state and city officials, showed little enthusiasm for the White Army. Again, out of these 3320 volunteers only 1019, that is, less than a third, were old residents of Szeged, and the balance, some 2301 individuals, refugees.[58] At other stations the proportion of peasants, local residents, and refugees were roughly the same. In short, refugees made up over two-thirds of the counterrevolutionary army. A third to a half of the entire army, at least 2000 men, but perhaps as many as 3000 were officers,[59] and a significant portion? perhaps as many as 800 men? came from the gendarmerie, mostly from Transylvania.

Manpower shortage forced the recruiting committee to go to tortuous lengths to collect and transport at considerable expense all willing officers to Szeged from other parts of the country and from as far as Vienna. As these officers arrived they were immediately taken to a recruiting station, carefully debriefed, classified according to their political reliability, and assigned to an appropriate unit. The three categories of classification were: totally trustworthy; politically not cleared; politically unreliable, that is, a politically criminal past. Those in the first group were assigned to the officers, detachments, those in the second into special officers, units were placed under the surveillance of trusted officers, and those in the third group were immediately arrested.[60]

[]Concentration on recruitment of officers was partly a necessity, since they formed one of the few groups to whom the counterrevolutionary movement held a special attraction, and, moreover, because their skills were deemed essential to the army's success. Officers were to form its nucleus, which could be rapidly expanded when opportunity arose. Until the march from Szeged commenced most battalions and regiments remained in a skeletal form. The great surplus of officers also made it necessary to set up special elite companies, made up exclusively of officers.

These officers, detachments formed the backbone of the White Army -- they were the driving force which propelled the counterrevolutionary movement and Horthy forward to victory. They were the first to depart from Szeged, acting as the shock troops of the National Army; they were most responsible for the terror that soon followed. Baron Pál Prónay's detachment was the first to be established in early June. It was soon followed by the formation of Gyula OstenburgMoravek's special assault officers' company.[61] Subsequently a special officers' battalion was established with six companies. For a time both Prónay and Ostenburg were part of this unit, but later they seceded and operated as independent detachments, or more precisely, as terror groups subject only to Horthy's personal command. In July another special unit was established on the insistence of the Székely National Council. All the Transylvanian soldiers, except officers, after July, were to be enrolled in this special Székely infantry battalion. Another, the Bárdoss Company, commanded by Béla Bárdoss, was brought to life toward the end of June, mostly by city and county officials of Szeged and from the large number of refugee officials in the city. This group's prime function was to operate as a special, mostly political security detachment, patrolling the streets of Szeged.

These units and especially the officers's detachments formed the most extreme wing of the Szeged radical right. The Prónay detachment must be singled out as the most radical, the most uncompromising supporters of all right-wing causes. In many ways, Prónay and his specially selected officers personified the essence of the "Idea of Szeged." The detachment's flag blessed with great pomp and circumstance on July 15, symbolically reflected the two main objectives of the movement. Inscribed on one side, around the embroidered picture of the Virgin Mary, the patroness of Hungary, was the device: "Cum Deo, pro Patrie et Libertate." On the other side, the sentence was to continue, but only after the detachment marched into Budapest "et pro Rege nostro Apostolico." That is, the first goal was to liberate Hungary and then to abolish the republic and restore the Apostolic Kingdom of the Crown of St. Stephen to its rightful ruler. The symbolism was complete when the soldiers swore their oath to this flag. They were the sons of the old noble elite who were determined to recapture the country of the forefathers and to lead a punitive expedition against all those who dared challenge the supremacy of their class within Hungary.

A closer look at the social composition of the original Prónay detachment bears out the essentially gentry character of these officers, companies. Out of the initial 163 members 86 were identified as belonging to the Hungarian nobility, and only 26 as commoners. An additional 32 were German, either Austrian or assimilated Germans; some also had noble titles. Virtually the entire detachment was composed of refugees from various parts of Hungary, but 58, that is, over a third, were refugees from the Successor States,62 mostly petty nobles from Transylvania. It was precisely this segment of the nobility which came to be dependent on the state during the last decades of the former monarchy, the stratum whose survival was most intertwined with the fate of the old state bureaucracy. The lower nobles, too, were those who were most traumatized and radicalized by the upsurge of the national minorities, who had the most to lose by the loss of the minority areas. Their privileged position within the state was also the most endangered by the social revolution and the challenge from the radical and liberal intelligentsia.

Additionally, these officers were young, few over thirty-five, most below the age of thirty and some under twenty. The leading figures were only captains, such as Hussar Captains Pal Prónay, Miklós Kozma, József Görgey, Captains on the General Staff Gyula Gömbös and Gyula Toókos, and Captains Gyula Ostenburg and László Magasházy. Older officers in the higher ranks were noticeably few. The younger officers came from a new generation of nobles, whose Weltanschauung and emotional makeup were distinct from those of the preceding generation. Born during the 1880s and 1890s they reached maturity in the turbulent decade before the war or during the war. Their future was clouded, their identities less secure. As a result throughout their lives, they existed in a defensive atmosphere. They were defending a disintegrating social order and the noble world view. They were also fighting for preservation of the nobility's warrior self-image, which, in the past, had served to justify their privileged position. The brutality of the war and the callous disregard for the value of life weakened past moral restraints. In their view, military control of society and the use of terror had become justified, and even necessary, as the only means to end society's ills.

The officers, companies first flexed their muscles within the Szeged counterrevolutionary movement, where they managed to gain political power. The Prónay detachment became the strong arm as well as the arms and ears of the Horthy faction within the government. Prónay collected information for Horthy and for himself; he organized a spy system both in Szeged and in Hungary where he maintained regular contacts with right-wing officers, groups. He sent out regular patrols to guard secret routes to Szeged with order to arrest anyone suspected of bearing any clandestine messages from the Communist government. Those who were caught in his net were taken into Prónay's "laboratory," as he called his torture chambers, where the victim was frightfully and sadistically tortured until he confessed everything, "even that which he never knew". [63 ]No one was secure from his officers' suspicion, not even members of the counterrevolutionary government or army. The French presence at Szeged served as the only restraint on this group's violence, but even repeated French protests could not eliminate their activities.[64]

It was this White Army that descended on Hungary after the Soviet regime,s collapse. It emerged not as a victorious army triumphant in combat over the Red Army. The first unit of the National Army, the Pónay detachment, had to steal its way across the French lines in the middle of night. While they had to wait with impatience in Szeged, the Romanian Army, attacked by Soviet forces, went into counterattack, forcing Béla Kún to yield power on the first day of August to an all Social Democratic government.

News of these events reached Szeged on August 2, 1919. It was received with both enthusiasm and anxiety. The opportunity of the moment was great, the dangers were clear. It was imperative to begin the march toward Budapest before the new government had an opportunity to consolidate its forces or before other political groups could make their bid for political power.

The attitude of the French held the key to the fate of the counterrevolutionaries in Szeged. Without their permission to depart the White a Army might have remained bottled up in Szeged. The French, however, no longer had any reason for restraining these forces. The collapse of the Communist regime in Budapest eliminated the reasons for maintaining a strict cordon around Szeged. Thus the French yielded to the demands of the National Army and granted permission for departure.

The White Army's haste was necessary in view of the Romanians, rapid advance. For the main Romanian force was marching in a north westerly direction toward Budapest. It was only a matter of days before i Romanian troops were in position to fan out toward the south-west as well as toward the Yugoslav demarcation line, and occupy the entire region between the Tisza and the Danube Rivers. The danger of encirclement, capture, and even internment was genuine.

Thus in the early hours of August 4, even before the final French permission was granted, the first advance companies of the National Army crossed the French lines. This first unit was the detachment of Prónay, followed by three other officers' companies. The main force, several battalions and the officer cadre of several future regiments, some 1200 men followed a few days later.[65] Other units as they were outfitted followed the White Army's main force. In all, some 2400 2600 men marched out of Szeged. By the time, however, the White Army got under way the Romanians already occupied Budapest. Hence original plans had to be altered and, instead of heading for Budapest, the National Army marched to the Danube in the hope of crossing it before the rapidly advancing Romanians cut their road. Once in Transdanubia they were joined by the 3500-man Székely Brigade, that remnant of the Székely Division which never surrendered to the Romanians and had remained a semiautonomous force within the Red Army. In addition, a 9000-man force from the Red Army with headquarters at Székesfehervár, under the command of General Istvan Horthy, brother of Admiral Horthy, subordinated itself to the National Army.[66 ]On August 5, the forces' first units organized in Feldbach, under the command of Colonel Antal Lehár, also entered Hungary from the west. Regular Hungarian units stationed in west Hungary recognized Lehár's authority, and the forces under his command soon reached division strength, nearly 18,000 men.[67] Shortly after the occupation of Budapest the advance of the Romanian army was halted under Western pressure, but by that time, they occupied the northern districts of Transdanubia as far as the cities of Györ. Veszprém, and Székes fehérvár. In the unoccupied regions, however, the various refugee and other right-wing military groups were given an opportunity to consolidate their power.

The experiences of the Vienna and Szeged refugee groups proved, once more, that the old ruling classes when relying upon their own strength were impotent; they were incapable of defending the country against the Successor States after the October Revolution; they proved unable to organize a successful counterrevolution against Mihály Károlyi, they could not even seriously challenge the Communist government, though it was internationally isolated and gradually lost its popular support. In spite of their seemingly feverish counterrevolutionary activities, loud oratory, the vast majority of the refugees remained passive observers. Their activities were often only make-believe, without consequence or import except to themselves, serving only to shield them from admitting failure. For the opportunity to return to Hungary from Austria and Szeged the counterrevolutionary aristocracy and gentry owed gratitude to the much despised Romanians, whom, even if only for a brief period, they had to consider their benefactors and allies.[68] This was their final humiliation.

The refugees in Szeged and Vienna, if for no other reason than to cleanse themselves of this last stigma and to demonstrate their independence, had to prove to the nation, but above all to themselves, that they, as the old elite, still had the strength and determination to assume control of the country without foreign help. With the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic all dangers and all penalties for action were eliminated. This permitted the refugees to swing from passivity into violent action. From their sense of weakness and powerlessness sprang the terror which they let loose against those who dared to challenge their supremacy. Openly and proudly they discarded humanism and promised retribution. As one of the officers, Miklós Kozma. wrote at the beginning of August 1919:

Both the red and the pink eras are over. We shall see to it . . . that the flame of nationalism leaps high.... We shall also punish. Those who for months have committed heinous crimes must receive their punishment. It is predictable . . . that the compromisers and those with weak stomachs will moan and groan when we line up a few red rogues and terrorists against the wall. Once before the false slogans of humanism and other isms' helped drive the country to its ruin. This second time they will wail in vain.[69]


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