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Expansion of the National Army

There is little doubt that from the time of the National Army's arrival in Transdanubia the aim of Horthy and his circle was to establish a military dictatorship, to make Horthy the unchallenged master of Hungary.[l4] He was unable to match the political strength of the KNEP, especially with its impressive array of well-known political and public figures. His only weapon was the army, but he used this to his maximum advantage. From Siófok, until the Romanian evacuation of Budapest, he carefully orchestrated its expansion and made a determined effort to bring under his command the various independent military groups in the country. Concurrently, he extended his authority to most unoccupied territories of Transdanubia, and, thus, effectively outflanked the Budapest government, Horthy ruled in these areas through his officers and not through the regular local administrative agencies, which took their directives from the Friedrich government. Only in western Hungary, in the Szombathely, Sopron, Köszeg area, where Baron Lehár controlled most of the military forces, did the military and representatives of the government cooperate smoothly. In most other areas, except in some of the larger towns.[15] whenever disagreement arose over contradictory orders from Siófok and Budapest, the military was able to force its will upon civilian authorities.

Between mid-August and November 1919, when Horthy finally marched into Budapest, the size of the military forces recognizing his supreme command in Transdanubia had increased from less than three thousand to roughly fifty thousand.[l6] The National Army's expansion did not drastically alter its political outlook and only slightly its social composition. It remained a hotbed of radicalism and continued to be dominated by young officers, by the gentry and gentroid elements. The proportion of refugees also remained nearly as high as in the Szeged Army. Although the population at large was less than enthusiastic about the White Army, Horthy, freed from the close supervision of the French, was able to recruit from the larger pool of potential counterrevolutionaries in Hungary. The old officer corps and noncommissioned officers remained the prime target of his appeals for volunteers. They were the only people whom Horthy could genuinely trust and expect to follow his lead. Many officers who remained in Hungary during the Soviet regime now surfaced and eagerly grasped at the opportunity for advancement promised by the National Army's imminent victory. In most parts of Transdanubia when the Red Army collapsed left-wing soldiers deserted their units. Leaving behind in the barracks only a skeletal force of commissioned and noncommissioned officers. They were anxious to demonstrate their right-wing sympathies and immediately recognized Horthy as their commander. Sons of the nobility were equally eager to join. Whenever one or another officers, detachments appeared in an area they were always able to beef up their ranks with recruits from this group and then use their knowledge of local conditions to seek out all those who were considered to be Communists or Communist sympathizers. In widely scattered parts of the country, during August, a number of independent terror groups also sprung up. These were also gradually linked to the National Army.

Service in the White Army held a special appeal to the younger generations of refugees. One of the first refugee groups to recognize Horthy's authority was the Székely Brigade. Many of their comrades from the Székely Division were already in the National Army, and some of the units were almost exclusively made up of Transylvanians. In addition, to many it seemed that only Horthy promised to follow a determined policy to regain the lost territories. They were welcome in the army since their refugee status provided them with good nationalist credentials. In fact the Székelys were virtually the only group that was trusted without reservation. A February 15, 1920 report on the political reliability of the so-called Berényi special gendarmerie group in Budapest is a good example of this trust. Out of its four companies only the first company, made up exclusively of Székelys, was to be considered totally trustworthy. The rest, recruited mostly from residents of the city, could not be relied upon.[17] In every major city in the country there were groups of radical refugees without any livelihood who were eager to participate in any military adventure. The army promised them regular and decent pay, special severance pay upon completion of service, a family allotment while in uniform, and possibly a new career.

The large number of Transylvanians in Horthy's army caused considerable anxiety to the Romanians. The Allied Military Mission, therefore, ordered Horthy to cease drafting them into his units and to dismiss all those already serving in the National Army. In a top-secret memorandum Horthy informed his commanders of this order but instead of compliance he ordered the circumvention of the directive. He wrote to his officers "According to the decision of the Entente generals the Székelys could not be drafted, nor used in any form.... The District Command must explain this in the proper manner to the various Székely units. They must be warned that as long as the Romanians are here, it is in their interest to keep their Transylvanian origins secret, otherwise the Romanians will demand their extradition and they will be interned . ." [18]

[]The Székelys were to remain within the army, only the proud "Székely" designation of their units had to disappear. Thereafter, they were to be referred to only by the number of their regular army unit.[19]

Just as in Szeged, Horthy still hoped to fill the ranks of his army with recruits from the conservative peasantry. But only some of the wealthier peasants were willing to join voluntarily; the rest had to be drafted into the army, at times forcefully.

During September, with the Friedrich government's cooperation, Horthy ordered a call-up of the age groups between 25 and 35 years, effective in unoccupied territories of Hungary. In a series of secret orders he ordered a careful screening of all volunteers and draftees. Only the most loyal and most dedicated persons could be drafted; only peasants were to be called up, preferably the wealthier, land-owning peasants, rather than the landless day laborers or peasants from the large estates, that is, "only those elements whose moral and political viewpoints were totally unimpeachable."[20] From the new recruits a special oath was extracted. They had to swear to fight against Bolshevism and had to take an absolute oath of obedience not to the government or to the constitution, but personally to Horthy.

Horthy made several attempts to bring under the control of the Army High Command all law enforcement agencies, including the regular city police, the rural gendarmerie, the border police, and the treasury officers. In this, he was only partially successful. The Friedrich government. and especially Beniczky, the minister of interior, vehemently opposed this attempt. In a letter to Beniczky, Horthy argued that a united command for all coercive forces of the state was necessary since the primary task of all armed and police forces was to wage war against the remnant forces of Communists, and to prepare for the reconquest of the lost territories. The border police, for example, in addition to their regular functions, were to maintain constant contact with the Hungarian population across the frontiers and were to aid them in their clandestine operations. Furthermore, Horthy expressed his intentions to purge,[ ]with the aid of the army, all police units in the country which, in his belief, during the revolutions had become infected with Socialist sympathies. He wished to replace all untrustworthy and disloyal elements with military officers, commissioned and noncommissioned. Finally, Horthy argued that the police's subordination, its restraint, and reorganization along military lines, were advisable for yet another reason. He expected that in the final peace treaty the size of the Hungarian army would be curtailed sharply, and, therefore, a large police force was necessary to augment the army.[21]

[]In this proposal Beniczky discovered a poorly disguised attempt by Horthy to deprive the government of all of its enforcement powers, thereby making it totally dependent on the Army High Command.[22] The promised purge threatened to replace all individuals opposed to Horthy even if their counterrevolutionary credentials were otherwise in good order. Beniczky, therefore, refused to yield on the issue of control of police; instead, he proposed an increase in police strength from the prewar level of 8960, which was sufficient at a time when Hungary was three times as large, to fifteen thousand.[23] This larger police force was required not only to make possible an intensified supervision of the working classes, but also to strengthen the hand of the government vis-á-vis the army.

The White Terror in Transdanubia

In spite of these differences the Friedrich group and the army agreed in one respect. Both believed that the first and most important task was to eliminate all traces of revolutionary spirit, to punish the guilty parties, and to restore the nobility to its previous position in the villages. Their solutions, however. differed. The government, in deference to Western opinion, preferred to use the judicial process to force the population into submission, whereas Horthy and his officers' detachments used a much more direct method. Both the police and the army arrested all those who were in the slightest way implicated in the revolution or who were suspected of Communist sympathies; but, the police generally turned these individuals over to the public prosecutors; officers dispensed with judicial niceties and often took their revenge on the spot.

In the history of the White Terror, therefore, the army played a far more important, and especially a more visible, role. The army also had a high concentration of the less prominent and most radical refugees. Protected from retribution by the uniform and by Horthy, they could freely vent their anger and release pent-up hostilities and frustrations against a population that dared to rise against them. Horthy fully shared his officers, prejudices and hatreds and agreed with them that at times, the most violent methods were necessary and justified against the rebellious elements in society. Only through ruthless intimidation and terror could the army and Horthy become supreme in the country. Consequently, Horthy imposed few limitations upon his officers, with the result that the officers' detachments operated as virtually independent little armies.

Emergence of independent or semi-independent military or terror groups was not unique to Hungary. Most defeated countries experienced a similar phenomenon. The makeup and motivation of these groups, however, were not the same. The most striking differences between, say, the German Freikorps movement and the Hungarian White Army was that the former was bourgeois in origin, while the latter bore the imprint of the Hungarian gentry. Also, unlike the Germans, the Hungarian counterrevolutionaries were less interested in reshaping the world along some vaguely defined abstract ideals than in constructing or reconstructing a society which restored the nobility to its past preeminent position.

The prewar privileged stratum, however, was far from united in its conception of post-revolutionary society. To the aristocracy and their followers the arrangements of the Dualist Era appeared to be ideal. But to many among the gentry and gentroid groups the broken pieces of that world could never be fitted together again. Only a surface restoration was possible. Within the reduced territory of Hungary it was impossible to accommodate all who laid claims. The refugees from the Successor States could never be completely satisfied. The surplus gentry in inner Hungary and large segments of the non-noble gentroid elements remained excluded from the centers of political power. The discontent of these groups rapidly crystallized into demands for a fundamental change in the social order. During their search for an ideological alternative some of them turned against the aristocracy and began to espouse, already in 1919, an ideology akin to Italian fascism; a typically modified version still within the context of the old noble national ideology which led some to characterize it as gentlemen's fascism (Urifasizmus). At its core we can still discover the old agrarian feudal conception of society. In 1919, however, these differences were still subsurface and did not prevent the entire nobility from marching in step against peasants and workers.

The nobility's aspirations to dominate society left a deep imprint on the character of the White Terror. The terror was, in fact, the work of the returning nobility trying to rebuild their past paradise. Paradoxical but typical of the mentality within the officers, detachments was that the military feared the working classes less than the essentially passive peasants. The working class had provided soldiers for the Red Battalions; the peasantry generally remained neutral or even sympathetic to the right. Nevertheless, harsh as treatment of the workers was, villagers bore the brunt of the terror.

Repression of the workers was left to the government and to the regular police or gendarmerie. The officers' detachments preferred to operate in the villages, small towns, and especially on the great estates. Consequently, the retaliatory measures against the workers were generally applied collectively,[24] while rebellious peasants and villagers were singled out for individual punishment. Hence, in the countryside a sympathetic word for a Communist cause might have resulted in immediate execution; many industrial workers or miners suffered no greater punishment for even serving in the Red Army than those that were inflicted on their class as a whole. To be sure, most workers subsequently suffered some form of persecution, but, at least, they survived the worst months of the White Terror. This greater circumspection, it is true, was partly due to the organized strength of the workers and to the greater watchfulness of the Western Socialist parties who tried to protect the Hungarian workers, but also to the obsession of the organizers of the White Terror with restoring peace in the villages.

The most notorious and most bloodthirsty of all the terror groups was that of Baron Pál Prónay, but the detachments of Gyula OstenburgMoravek, Antal Madary, Baron Jenö Jankovich-Besán, Iván Héjjas, as well as of the lesser-known commanders, lagged behind the officers of Prónay only in number of victims, not in cruelty. Prónay, Ostenburg and Madary marched into Transdanubia from Szeged; the other terror groups were formed after the overthrow of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Of these only Prónay left to posterity any written record of his activities, but it is easy to surmise that the thoughts and motivations of the other commanders were similar to his. In his journals Prónay catalogued some of his exploits. He relates these without a shred of remorse, without ever attempting to excuse himself. Rather the story is told with sadistic delight, in which some of the worst crimes of his men appear as nothing more than innocent pranks of lively children. From the pages of these journals emerges the stark naked picture of a terrorist: a hallow, emotionally deadened, empty man who is incapable of any human sentiment other than rage, a man who incorporated in his person all the faults and anxieties of his class, but without preserving its virtues. Prónay claims that authorization for the terror came directly from Horthy. Consequently, he merely followed orders. In view of the special relations that existed between Prónay and Horthy this is likely.[25] Prónay's instructions before leaving Szeged were specific and came from Horthy's Chief of Staff, General Károly Soós. These were: restore order, execute all Communist leaders, protect and restore to their offices all the pre-Revolutionary officials, and seize all state property.[76]

Horthy in his memoirs claimed that the headquarters of his army "never issued a bloodthirsty order." However, he meekly admits to terror and excuses himself by endorsing the opinion of his German biographer. "A soldier," he quotes, ". . . cannot be reprimanded for every trifle; the officers who exceed competence cannot always be shot or even disciplined, not, that is to say if the danger of mutiny, or worse, is to be avoided. In times of disturbance, the military cannot be too softhearted. Hell let loose on earth cannot be subjugated by the beating of angels' wings."[27]

[]Horthy did issue precisely such "bloodthirsty," orders. He also demanded from the government that its officials should not hinder his officers. To all county government plenipotentiaries he sent messages demanding the intensification of the terror. He wrote "I call upon all military and civilian authorities to commence immediate suppression of all operating centers of Communism, and to arrest all agitators and all participants in the criminal Communist regime who are still free, and to sentence them forthwith.... On this issue I will not accept any excuse."[28]

[]He threatened with dismissal those officials who were found to be soft on Communists. In a letter to Friedrich, Horthy demanded an immediate declaration of martial law for the entire Transdanubia. "We need extraordinary laws," he argued, "which are rigorously enforced by the judges." He warned Friedrich that:

Excesses of military authorities will be avoided only when everyone knows that arrested Communist leaders, even if it is not possible to prove any ordinary crime against them, will receive their just punishment. It hardly needs an explanation why it is necessary to use severe procedures to create terrible examples. I find it also necessary . . . to examine the procedures of the . . . judges. because so far the High Command had sad experiences with the behavior of the judiciary, especially concerning their laughably soft treatment of Bolsheviks[.29]


Prónay and his officers, as well as the other detachments, hardly needed encouragement from their chief. This becomes evident as one follows, through the pages of Prónay's journal, their terrible journey across the Hungarian countryside. From Szeged the officers' detachment fanned out in Transdanubia. They went from village to village, from estate to estate. Everywhere they recruited new officers, requisitioned food and other supplies, acquired new weapons, motor vehicles, airplanes, artillery pieces, and even armored trains. Their numbers rapidly increased. Within a month, for example, the original 160-man company of Prónay rose to around 400, and by January to 1600 men. Ostenburg's company also reached that size about the same time. The other detachments were similarly expanded. Prónay explained his aims in his journal: "My prime objective was to restore the earlier good relations between lords and servants on the great estates. For in an agricultural country such as Hungary . . . unhindered agricultural production is very important."[30]

Once across the Danube Prónay began to work on the restoration of those "earlier good relations", by organizing the first of his many "people's judgment," which was a euphemism for lynching. These events were reported to the public as spontaneous outbursts of the peasantry against Communists, but usually Prónay's men were the chief instigators.

Wherever these officers went the local landowners eagerly welcomed them; others sent urgent invitations to Prónay to visit their estates. At Cece, for example, Prónay was the guest of the gentry landowner Dénes Szluha. After Prónay visited the neighboring estates and silenced the uppity peasants with "well-measured canings," the grateful landowners of the district honored the officers with a feast and an all-night party. As he went from estate to estate his troops beat or executed arrested Communists, peasants and estate employees. Other detachments were equally brutal in the "pacification work." Most victims of the White Terror were poor peasants or servants on the great estates and a minority were Jews. Some of the latter were punished for their real or imagined roles during the Soviet Republic; others were caught in the web of suspicion that surrounded the Jewish community after the fall of the Kun regime. The reasons for those suspicions are not hard to see. The sizable Jewish community of the country played a highly visible and seemingly contradictory role in Hungary's modern history: the leading capitalists as well as Communists came from its ranks. As a result the Jewish community came to be identified with both the prewar and wartime abuses of the capitalist system and those of the postwar communist regime.

During the Dualist Era Jews achieved virtual equality. Jewish industrialists and bankers were primarily responsible for Hungary's rapid industrialization, playing a prominent role in the modernization of its economy. A substantial percentage of the country's non-noble middle class also came from the ranks of Jews. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the community as a whole, with the blessing of its most prominent leaders and without effective opposition by the rest of Hungary's society, was well on the way toward full assimilation.

The war and the postwar revolutions changed attitudes toward the Jewish community. The deprivations the population was forced to endure necessarily intensified resentment against the more prosperous classes and during the Hungarian Soviet Republic in the popular conception and especially in the not too subtle minds of such men as Prónay, Communism was linked with Jews. The prime cause for that linkage is to be found less in some widely felt need for scapegoats than in the image that the radicals and especially the Communist Party projected. The most prominent and visible leaders of the party, all but a few of the people's commissars and their deputies were Jewish; so were a majority of middle-rank officials, many of the radical publicists and, above all, such well-known and dreaded proponents of terror as Otto Korvin and Tibor Szamuely. As György Száraz pointed out, some of the victims of the Red Terror were also Jewish, about 70 of the hostages held by the Communist regime were leading Jewish industrialists and bankers.[31] The counterrevolutionary movement also enjoyed the political and financial support of a segment of the Jewish community. But these facts could alter but little the popular perception of Jews. Not surprisingly most Jews were suspected as potential Communist sympathizers, as responsible for the reckless policies of the Soviet regime, and the Red Terror was laid at the doorstep of the Jewish community.

Uncontrolled terror in the countryside, however, proved to be an ever-increasing embarrassment to the Allies. The Western Powers needed Horthy' s military strength to replace the Romanian occupying forces, but the Western liberal and especially Socialist press increasingly opposed recognition of Horthy as the man who was most responsible for the terror. It was necessary, therefore, to impress on Horthy that these activities must cease. At the same time, the Allied Military Mission was willing to cooperate in proving that his troops were not responsible for the murders, that they were the work of independent groups or the result of mass outrage against the Communists. In the name of the Allied Military Mission. therefore, a Jewish-American officer, Colonel Nathan Horowitz, was dispatched to Horthy's headquarters to investigate allegations of terror. Horthy was well warned of this visit. Consequently, Horowitz's tour was carefully prepared and the investigation, from Horthy's point of view, was a total success. In Horowitz's report which was transmitted to the Paris Peace Conference, he denied the existence of White Terror, and especially the responsibility of the National Army for some of the incidents.

I visited Siofok, headquarters of National Hungarian Army . . . and . . . investigated reports of mistreatment and murder of Jews and pogroms. I went thoroughly into the subject both with Jews of the neighborhood and with Hungarian officers and found that although there were several authenticated cases of mistreatment and even murders, that these could not be traced even remotely to Hungarian Army authority. On the contrary the authorities are doing their utmost to prevent injustice and disorder in territory under [their] control. Every case reported is investigated and guilty offenders severely punished. I am convinced that rumors regarding so-called White Terror are unfounded. I consider the officers of the National Hungarian Army to be patriotic and inspired with most liberal sentiments of duty and justice. No well-behaved Jews or Christians need fear anything at their hands. They represent the visible and tangible support that Hungary now has and should be received with acclaim by the Hungarian people instead of with suspicion and dread.[32]


This report remained the principal document to which the Horthy regime repeatedly pointed to refute the charges of terrorism. To allay public fears the Allies decided to publish this report, though the last phrases were omitted.[33]

[]Horthy himself gradually came to the conclusion that terror must be moderated. Horthy approved the harshness of his officers. He did not wish to end the terror completely, but he began to urge his officers to be more cautious in selecting victims and, above all, to be more skillful in covering up their tracks. Even Horthy had difficulty in convincing many officers of the advisability of this course. Many officers had an emotional investment in the terror which they were reluctant to yield. Prónay was especially opposed to moderation. He considered it a sign of cowardice to yield to the pressure of the Allies or to the liberal press of Budapest. According to him, there was nothing to be gained from moderation.

From several directions pressure was exerted on Horthy to end the terror. Not only the Allies and Western press found its continuation intolerable, but many within Hungarian conservative circles were equally opposed to it. Hungarian prelates, aristocrats. at times the very same aristocrats who had invited the officers to their estates to restore order, were shocked by the unexpected violence of the officers. Even older members of the officers corps, temporarily outside the service or attached to regular army units, expressed their revulsion, considering terror by officers a stain on the honor of the officers corps and the nation. Baron Lehár, for example, fell into this category. On August 6, 1919, upon crossing the Austrian border, in a proclamation, he reassured the population that his troops were under strict order to refrain from violence.[34] As a result, his forces established army control in west Hungary with few incidents.

During negotiations about formation of a new government that would be acceptable to the Western Powers, next to subordination of the National Army to the civilian government, the question of terror was the single most important issue. By the first weeks of November the Romanians were ready to withdraw from most of the country, and the task of occupying Budapest and the region between the Danube and the Tisza Rivers had to be assumed by Horthy's troops. The Allies were also pressing Hungarian political leaders to form a broadly based coalition government so that peace negotiations could begin. On October 23 a special envoy of the Entente, Sir George Clerk, a British diplomat, arrived in Budapest to direct negotiations between contending parties.[35 ]Horthy's attitude, however, remained a question mark. If he intended to carry the terror into the capital he could not be acceptable either to the KNEP or to the Allies. Already at the beginning of September a prestigious delegation, composed of Beniczky, Count Bethlen, Count József Károlyi, Count Andrássy, Count Batthyány, and Margrave Pallavicini visited Horthy, and tried to convince him of the inadvisability of terror. They also tried to seek out Horthy's plans for the time after he marched into Budapest. To Beniczky's question: "If the National Army marches into the capital will there be a pogrom, yes or no?" Horthy replied: "There will not be a pogrom! But a few people will have to take a swim!"[36] On this issue Horthy's attitude remained the same during the Clerk negotiations.

On the question of the coalition government Horthy's opposition to inclusion of Liberals and Socialists remained one of the major stumbling blocks. In this he shared the views of the KNEP representatives, but, while KNEP leaders were extremely susceptible to Western pressure, Horthy was able to hold out.[37] Nevertheless, on November 5, a compromise was reached between Horthy and the Liberal and Socialist parties. Horthy agreed that the army's march into Budapest would not lead to the establishment of a military dictatorship. The army would subordinate itself to the representatives of the Entente and to the government that was established with its cooperation. At the same time Horthy reserved the right to crush all manifestations of communism.

Thus the door was opened to formation of a coalition government as well as for occupation of Budapest by the National Army. The first units to arrive in the capital were actually those of Baron Lehár. These, however, as the only fully combat-ready forces, were soon ordered to leave the city, to follow the retreating Romanian army, and to occupy central and eastern regions of Hungary. On November 16, Admiral Horthy himself, between walls of his troops, accompanied by the Prónay and Ostenburg detachments, mounted on a white horse, triumphantly rode into Budapest.

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