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Chapter 8
The Struggle for Power and the White Terror

Collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic on the first day of August signaled the beginning of a scramble for political power by the various counterrevolutionary groups. Those people who went into hiding during the Kun period, magnates. gentry officials, members of the bourgeoisie, politicians of the old order, suddenly surfaced and threw themselves into the struggle for control of the country. All the refugees who at one time or another had fled to Austria or to Szeged, the conservative aristocrats, the Bethlen-Teleki, the Szmrecsányi-Beniczky groups, and the radicals of Szeged, plus the various independent little armies, such as those of Baron Lehár and above all of Admiral Horthy, descended upon the country and demanded a voice in the new counterrevolutionary government.

The fierceness of the struggle that ensued between these factions is, however, misleading. The perpetual government crisis of the next two years, formation of countless political parties, fragmentation and mergers of these parties all tend to give an impression of a bitter ideological conflict. In reality no sharp difference existed between the groups. What is remarkable, in fact, is how close these groups were in their political and social outlook. Nothing is more indicative of this than the fact that the only issue which polarized the new political elite into two opposing factions was the question of Habsburg restoration. The legitimacy issue turned essentially on personalities; it did not involve any fundamental social or political problems. This is understandable, since nearly all the participants in the political struggles came from only one end of the political spectrum, from the right. The democratic center was reduced to impotence; the left was decimated, its members were either killed, arrested, fled abroad, or moved underground.[1]

With the victory of the right the Hungarian political arena came to resemble a large exclusive club filled with quarrelsome people, where each member paid his dues in real or imagined counterrevolutionary activities. In this, the pool of visible political leaders numbered in the scores, each surrounded by a narrow circle of like-minded friends; the constituency of active supporters, on which the entire counterrevolutionary edifice rested. was only a few hundred thousand. Consequently, the fall of a government or reshuffling of a cabinet never really signaled a change of course or adoption of new policies, but merely a change of personalities. Nor did removal from office mean exclusion of the fallen members from the club. The same faces kept reappearing a decade or even two decades later.

The narrowness of the political base permitted the refugees from the Successor States to exercise a far greater influence in Hungary' s political life than their actual numbers in relation to the entire population would have warranted. Tens of thousands of politically active refugees, by permeating virtually all right-wing organizations, were often able to assume a commanding position or at least exercise a de facto veto power in national issues. As members of different factions these refugees may have clashed with each other, mostly over personalities, but they remained essentially united over the broader issues and specifically over those which affected them as a group.

The price which the refugees extracted for their support was very high, but no government dared to alienate such a large segment of its basic constituency by ignoring their vital economic or political interests. The refugees, discontent and their radical attitudes greatly hindered the country's return to normalcy. The White Terror, in which many of the refugees participated, within months after victory of the right, became an increasing political liability. Refugee economic claims upon the state treasury became an excruciating burden which slowed down the rate of economic recovery of the entire country. Their reciprocation of the hostility of the leaders of the Successor States and their universal opposition to the Treaty of Trianon isolated the country and paralyzed its foreign policy. Not until Bethlen, himself a refugee, assumed control of the government, was a compromise found between the interests of the state as a whole and those of the refugees. As we shall see, this compromise favored the refugees.

On August 1, the all-Socialist or trade-union government of Gyula Peidl was formed; it had only a slim chance of survival. The political pendulum, which since the October Revolution was steadily moving toward the left, suddenly turned and threatened to sweep the country toward the opposite extreme. Although the Social Democratic Party purged its radicals, it was too closely identified with the revolution, and with the Hungarian Soviet state, to be able to survive in power. Several cabinet ministers in the new government, even if during the previous months they had consistently opposed the radical course of the extreme left, were vulnerable to charges of communist sympathies. The Peidl government's weakness was compounded by the fact that it had to function without a coercive force. The working class was exhausted in the struggle of the past months and the workers, battalions were dissolved.

If this government was to survive, it needed time to dissociate itself from the Soviet regime' s radical policies, thereby gaining support of the peasantry and the moderate bourgeois elements. This was, in fact. the basic thrust of the new government's policies. In rapid succession it issued a series of edicts, all aimed at dismantling the system built up during the Hungarian Soviet regime. Under the terms of these edicts the government released all imprisoned counterrevolutionaries, abolished the revolutionary courts, restored the prewar judicial system and the old city police and the gendarmerie. It restored to their previous owners all nationalized private property, such as apartment houses, industrial or commercial enterprises; reduced wages; lifted rent control; and finally, in a secret memorandum, it ordered the arrest of all fleeing Communists.[2] All of these measures were designed to reassure the bourgeoisie of the benign character of the Socialist government. At the same time, as a gesture toward the peasantry, the confiscated estates were not restored to their previous aristocratic owners. Simultaneously, Peidl, with a coalition government in mind, opened negotiations with the various liberal parties and on August 5 with the leader of the Smallhold ers' Party, István Nagyatádi Szabó.[3]

[]By these steps the Social Democrats also wished to demonstrate to the Western Powers that the new government had broken with the past and was determined to follow a moderate course. The government realized that only with the firm backing of the Allies could it remain in power and stem the rising tide of counterrevolution. Yet, although the government was created after negotiations with Allied representatives in Vienna, the Allied and Associated Powers refused to recognize it, since it was comprised of representatives of only one party.[4] The Romanian government's attitude also became an important factor, since Romanian troops occupied Budapest. The anticommunist Romanian government remained hostile to the idea of a Socialist government in Hungary and refused to protect this government against the right-wing counterrevolutionaries. Without substantial allied support, the Peidl government's fate was sealed. It fell easy prey to the counterrevolutionary groups at the first sign of force.

On August 6 a small band of counterrevolutionaries, taking advantage of the government's isolation, simply marched into a cabinet meeting and informed the Peidl government that its brief tenure of office had come to an end. This coup d'etat was the work of a Budapest-based counterrevolutionary organization known as the White House group. Its members were mostly non-noble, professional or bourgeois residents of the city, supported by a group of police and army officers. They acted with boldness since they were assured of. at least, some Western backing. The Romanians, who were informed of their intent. remained neutral, while the British and the Italian representatives in Budapest gave their tacit approval. On the day before the coup General Reginald Gorton, head of the British military mission in Budapest. and Prince Livio Borghese, head of the Italian mission to Vienna, arrived in Budapest and immediately held a series of conferences with some of the leaders of this group, as well as with Archduke Joseph . [5] The upshot of these negotiations was that on August 7, claiming Western support, Archduke Joseph proclaimed himself governor of the country. In this capacity he immediately appointed a temporary caretaker government headed by István Friedrich, his chief supporter and a member of the White House group. The rest of the cabinet was composed of other participants of the coup and of leading bureaucrats in the various ministries.

The Friedrich government's position was even weaker than that of the Social Democrats. It represented no great political bloc, but merely that small group of adventurers who actually carried out the coup d'etat. Nor could Friedrich rely upon the military backing of his Western supporters. The Italians had only a military mission in the capital; the British had a tiny force at their disposal only after August 25, when a small flotilla sailed up the Danube and landed a few troops along the west bank of the river. The entire country east of the Danube, the city of Budapest, as well as the northern counties of Transdanubia east of Györ, remained under Romanian military control. The Romanians refused to recognize the Friedrich government and, with French encouragement, they maintained that a state of war still existed between the two countries. Until a cease-fire agreement went into effect, Romania reserved, for itself, the right to deal with Hungary as a belligerent power; to extend its zone of occupation whenever the security of her forces demanded it; to disarm any Hungarian military unit, including those of the right; and to arrest all those judged dangerous by the Romanian military authorities.[6] Only in deference to Britain and Italy did they not arrest the Friedrich government.

The new government, almost immediately after its formation, came under strong pressures from two other quarters. Both the French and the excluded counterrevolutionary groups were determined to overthrow the Friedrich cabinet or, at least, to alter drastically its composition. The swift diplomatic action by the British and the ltalians caught the French unprepared; for the French were backing the Szeged counterrevolutionary government, which precisely at this moment was in process of disintegration. The French could not recognize a government that was established without their consent and against their will. France objected especially to Archduke Joseph as the head of the new Hungarian state. In this Paris was strongly supported by all the Successor States, who saw a danger to their very existence in a Habsburg restoration anywhere in Europe. Under these circumstances the British and the Italians began to retreat from their earlier support of Archduke Joseph and tried to shift the blame on the Romanians for the overthrow of the moderate Socialist government.

For Friedrich this opposition to the person of Archduke Joseph presented a dilemma. It was made clear to him that as long as Archduke Joseph was head of state no peace negotiations could commence. At the same time the prestige that the Archduke lent to his government helped to legitimize it. Joseph, finally, had to recognize the hopelessness of his position and agreed to yield to pressures by resigning on August 23. It was not possible for anyone to fill his position immediately. That rather delicate question of electing a new head of state had to be postponed until after the evacuation of the Romanians and the election of a new parliament.

Removal of Joseph did not earn Friedrich recognition by the Allies. Although the Western Powers set no specific conditions, they demanded formation of a coalition government capable of restoring peace, and of maintaining itself in power. Some Western Powers were especially anxious to establish a strong anticommunist government in Budapest as rapidly as possible so that the occupation of the country could be terminated. They planned to transfer the released army of occupation to Romania's eastern frontiers to join the Denikin Army in the fight against Soviet Russia.

The Western Powers realized that only the radical right was in a position to organize the necessary military forces to assure a permanent liquidation of the leftist revolution in Hungary. At the same time these powers, especially France, wished to guard against, mostly for domestic reasons, the introduction of an open military dictatorship. They urged creation of a coalition government formed from political parties right of the moderate Social Democrats to which the various right-wing military groups were to be subordinated. Thus they simultaneously pressed for formation of a moderate government and aided expansion of the counterrevolutionary police and army.[7]

As long as the right remained fragmented no such solution could be brought about. Friedrich possessed neither the skill nor the political stature to bring about a reconciliation of the feuding factions. He was able to seize power from the Peidl government only because at the time his was the only counterrevolutionary force in Budapest. As the refugees from Austria and from Szeged returned to the capital they exerted increasing pressure for reorganization of the government. Indeed, Friedrich's first cabinet rested on an extremely narrow base, excluding most of the potential supporters of even the extreme right. Friedrich, himself a factory owner. may be considered a representative of the wealthy bourgeoisie;[8] some other members of his cabinet, András Csilléry, a dentist, and Jenö Polnay, a Jewish lawyer friend of Friedrich, represented Budapest's right-wing professional bourgeois elements. Generals Gábor Tánczos and Ferenc Schnetzer represented the officer corps and the other ministers the bureaucracy. The entire cabinet lacked luster; it was composed of political unknowns. It was without strong gentry representation and without one aristocrat, which was almost unthinkable in Hungarian politics. Political leaders of the old regime were excluded as were the representatives of the major refugee groups. Most important, the National Army did not identify with the Friedrich government. In truth, what is remarkable is the length of time Friedrich was able to maintain himself at the head of the government. Paradoxically he was greatly helped in this by the occupation of Budapest by the Romanian army. The National Army could not and did not want to enter the capital due to the presence of the Romanians. Friedrich tried to seize this opportunity to establish a military force loyal to him, but his efforts were largely frustrated by the Romanian army's violent opposition to a Hungarian military force in Budapest. Therefore, only organization of his potential supporters into a powerful political bloc and experimentation with different political combinations in his cabinet remained open to him. As it turned out, this strategy was not sufficient for recognition by the Allies.

Generally, the regular police forces were loyal to the government, but the Romanians refused to consent to their reorganization and relented only under strong pressure from Paris. When a small police force, under Allied supervision, was at last organized it was feared that it might prove to be insufficient to protect the government against the working class. Too, for political reasons, the government was eager to line up behind itself the middle class by organizing from its ranks military or paramilitary units. The government especially welcomed the spontaneous clandestine efforts of right-wing university students to arm themselves. The first "University Battalion" was established at the School of Engineering on August 7, 1919, followed by the "Medical Student Battalion," which was soon renamed " School of Science Battalion." On August 12, the formation of these units was officially endorsed by an order of the Ministry of Defense.[9] During the next few weeks the size of the student battalions was rapidly expanded from an initial 300-400 to 1200 by the beginning of September, to 2400 by December, and. finally, to 3000 by the fall of 1920. A majority of the volunteers were older students, whose education had been interrupted by the war. Most served in the army as reserve junior officers. In the student battalions, just as in the other counterrevolutionary armies, the size of the refugee contingent was quite large. In the fall of 1920, out of approximately 3000 student soldiers 930 came from the lost territories: in the battalion of the School of Sciences 38 percent of the volunteers were refugees.[10]

The refugee students identified with the Friedrich government's Christian and nationalist ideology. But their enthusiasm for service may be also attributed to the generous salaries the government agreed to pay to them. Penniless, without any income, often without as much as a change of clothing, these refugee students were saved from starvation by a monthly pay of over 800 crowns.

Though numerically the battalions represented a significant force with considerable political weight, their military value was limited. In December the battalions had sufficient number of rifles to arm less than half their numbers. As a result, they were used mostly to guard military installations and major utilities or were held in reserve against a potential workers' uprising. Indeed, subsequently the battalions were called gendarme reserve battalions. In other words, the university battalions were helpful as an internal security force and temporarily helped the Friedrich government to remain in power, but could not guarantee the government's long-range survival. In fact, after Horthy entered Budapest most of the battalions transferred their loyalty to him.

During August and September 1919 Friedrich made every effort to organize a powerful political bloc. Between mid-August and September 11, he had reshuffled his cabinet three times, only to be informed by the Allies that each new combination was still unacceptable.[11] First, he dropped most of the political unknowns, trying to open his government first to the left and then to the right. He appointed the Liberal Márton Lovászy as foreign minister, István Nagyatádi Szabó, the Smallholders' Party leader, as minister of agriculture, and, from the old Catholic People's Party, he included in his cabinet István Haller and Károly Huszár. This combination proved unworkable. After a minor cabinet reorganization toward the end of August, a major government change took place on September 11. Lovászy and Nagyatádi were excluded. their places taken by legitimist radicals or conservative supporters of the aristocracy. Odön Beniczky from the SzmrecsányiBeniczky ABC faction took over the ministry of the interior, and with it control of the police. To Count József Somssich, a wealthy Catholic aristocrat, went the foreign ministry, and Gyula Rubinek, a gentry politician from northern Hungary and head of the Országos Magyar Gazdasági Egyesület or OMGE, the powerful association of the great estate owners became the minister of agriculture.

One result of these changes was that politicians who returned from Austria were given a voice in the government. With each of the successive government changes the number of those members born outside the reduced territory of Hungary steadily increased as well. In the first cabinet only three out of eleven such individuals served including Friedrich himself, who, although born near Pozsony, was a long-time resident of Budapest. In the government formed in midAugust this number rose to eight out of fifteen; in Friedrich's final cabinet nine of the sixteen. This last government was no more successful in gaining Allied recognition than its predecessors due to Social Democratic refusal to join it. Nevertheless, it made some important gains in another direction. Under its auspices, and with the aid of refugees, a strong political alliance was formed, which became one of the two major parties of the "Christian bloc."

The Christian National Unity Party,[l2] or KNEP, was formed during October 1919 representing the merger of the Christian Social Economy Party, successor to the prewar Catholic People's Party and of Friedrich's own Christian National Party. The old People's Party was strongest in west Hungary and the Slovak areas. It was the party of the Catholic Church and of Catholic magnates and was led by Count Aladár Zichy and István Rakovszky, a member of a prominent gentry family from northern Hungary. A large number of well-known refugee politicians belonged to this party. It was the party of György Szmrecsányi, Odön Beniczky, Sándor Ernszt, János Bartos, all born in northern Hungary, of István Haller, from Szatmár county, lost to Romania, and Károly Huszár, who was born in Austria. This group took over the leadership of the new Christian National Unity Party. They were strongly backed by the refugee aristocrats from Slovakia, by men like Count Gyula Andrássy, Jr., the Zichy family, Count Albert Apponyi, the dean of the Hungarian aristocracy, along with most of the legitimist aristocrats of western Hungary. The Catholic bishops closely identified with the refugee aristocrats and lined up behind a restoration of Hungary's lost territories. The church was in danger of losing over forty percent of its flock, a majority of them to Czechoslovakia, and the bishops stood to lose about sixty percent of their estates. Catholic prelates looked upon this party as their own and lent it their considerable prestige. The Bethlen-Teleki group also participated in the negotiations leading to the formation of the KNEP; Count Kunó Klebelsberg, a friend of Bethlen from Arad, and the Catholic Count Pál Teleki joined the party. Some Transylvanians, however, stayed away, for as Protestants and Transylvanians, they could be at best only mildly enthusiastic about the idea of a Habsburg restoration.

The wealthy, conservative bourgeoisie of Budapest, including some Jewish capitalists. also supported the party, or, at least, wished to attach themselves to it. It seems that their aim was to create the symbiotic relationship between large capital and large estate that served so well both strata during the 1867-1918 period. Aristocrats were expected to restrain the anticapitalist propaganda of the radical right; Jews hoped that the Church would use its moral authority to end attacks upon Jews.

In short, the KNEP was roughly an alliance of the refugee group that returned from Vienna, the Church. the bourgeoisie of Budapest. and counterrevolutionaries of the capital. During Friedrich's tenure of office this coalition did everything in its power to prepare itself for the moment when the Hungarian right would rule by itself, without the hindrance of the occupation forces. They were also preparing for the political struggle that was certain to ensue within the right itself. Supporters of the party, therefore, were entrenched in the various centers of power, in ministries, police, and judicial system. The manpower for this was drawn partly from the ready pool of refugee office seekers. To assure control of the countryside and to carry out the program of the KNEP the government appointed trustworthy individuals with extraordinary powers to head the administration of the various regions or counties of unoccupied Hungary. These plenipotentiaries came mostly from the ranks of the legitimist aristocracy. Most prominent among them were Count József Károlyi, Count István Zichy, Margrave György Pallavicini, Count Antal Sigray, and Count Gedeon Ráday. Some members of the gentry were also appointed, among whom the best-known figures were Gaszton Gaál and György Szmrecsányi.

The coalition seemed strong enough to establish itself in power once the Romanians withdrew from the country. It spanned most of the right, embracing conservatives, radicals, as well as most of the aristocrats, segments of the gentry and nationalist bourgeoisie. Its principal weakness was its lack of military force, though the gravity of this shortcoming was not immediately realized. There was no reason to believe that Admiral Horthy would not support the program of the Christian Nationalists. The Szeged government, which brought to life the army of Horthy, had already resigned in favor of the Friedrich government. Admiral Horthy was also known to be a loyal supporter of the Habsburgs. He spoke often of his great admiration for Emperor Franz Joseph that he had developed while serving as his aide-de-camp.[13] In conversations with legitimist aristocrats he repeatedly assured his listeners of his loyalty to the dynasty. Hence, understandably, many unsuspecting legitimists, though not all. were lulled into believing that Horthy was indeed their man. It is doubtful, for example, that Baron Lehár, an ardent legitimist, would have been willing to subordinate himself to Horthy had Horthy' s subsequent attitude toward King Károly been known at the time. It was wise for Horthy to conceal his real views and ambitions even from his own officers among whom some, such as Ostenburg, also held strong legitimist sentiments. It is also conceivable, however, that, at that time, Horthy, indeed, felt as he publicly stated.

The Friedrich government tried to appease Horthy by recognizing him as the Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian Army, but Horthy and, even more likely, the men in his entourage, had higher ambitions. He already exercised the powers of the Commander-in-Chief without any government sanction. The Friedrich government could offer him nothing that would have induced him to abandon his freedom of action. He gratefully acknowledged the government's recognition of his title, but steadfastly refused to reciprocate in form of subordinating himself to the minister of defense or to the cabinet. He also refused to transfer his command post to Budapest--he was to enter that city only on his own terms at the head of his army. Until then Horthy was satisfied with remaining at his headquarters at Siófok on the shore of Lake Balaton.

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