By Patricia H. Kushlis
Deborah Cornelius’ book Hungary in World War II is as much about the aftermath that followed the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles as it is about the horrific years suffered by many Hungarians living in that new, smaller country during World War II itself.
When I was on the US Delegation to the 1992 CSCE (now OSCE) Review Conference in Helsinki, Finland, I learned that a major concern for American foreign policy makers at the time was the possibility of irredentism rearing its ugly head after the Soviet Union’s break up, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet troop withdrawals from Central Europe.
This was one of the major reasons the US hoped the EU would open its doors to its Central European neighbors far sooner than it did. It was also a major reason why NATO almost immediately established “Partners for Peace” – an associate kind of affiliation with NATO for former Warsaw Pact members. The goal was to maintain stability in Central Europe and prevent it from turning into another Yugoslavia then being torn apart by civil war.
Fears of irredentism
The US fears of irredentism concerned Hungary in particular because of the relatively large number of ethnic Hungarians living in traditionally Hungarian lands outside the country’s borders and the population’s earlier desire to regain those lost territories that had once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These sought-after contiguous lands had been awarded to less than friendly neighbors in the questionable European post-World War I settlement that destroyed that empire for good and set the stage for World War II. (Photo right: Treaty of Paris -US State Department)
It was also one reason ultra-right and even less politically conservative Hungarians were so susceptible to the rhetoric of Hitler’s Reich. Their goal was to regain even part of the lost lands – which, in the end, happened for a short time as a result of their siding with the Germans. This dangerous irredentist quest also helped to destabilize and weaken the country politically as happened not only during the interwar years but throughout the ensuing war. Then when the Soviets reached Hungarian soil on their drive across Europe near the end of the war, their treatment of the Hungarians was exactly how an occupation force should not have behaved. Stalin treated the country as the overlord of conquered territory and Hungarians as subjugated people - allowing his soldiers to rape and pillage at will.
Percentage Agreements Ignored
And despite the secret percentage agreements between Stalin and Churchill forged on a scrap of paper at Yalta in 1945 which had supposedly divided influence over the country 50-50 between the Soviets and the West, possession became nine-tens of the law. The West was preoccupied elsewhere, a possible Allied Balkan landing and drive up the peninsula never materialized and the Soviets had a free hand.
Soviet troops drove the Germans out of Hungary and neighboring Austria en route to Berlin. Within a couple of years the Soviets overturned the popular will – Cornelius clearly documents that few Hungarians had wanted their country to become a Communist state - via a Soviet dominated “Allied” Control Commission that installed a Communist puppet regime whose members had, for the most part, spent the war in Moscow.
It hadn’t helped the Hungarians in the war’s aftermath that Hitler had decided to make the country a forward battle ground for the contracting Reich - holding futilely on to Budapest when, as far as the Hungarians were concerned by that time at least they simply wanted out of a war that, for many, had been thrust upon them through a coalition of Reich supporters and the sneaky actions of an ultra-rightwing political party (the Arrow Cross).
Carefully researched book with long time reverberations
Cornelius’ carefully researched book describes in great detail what happened to the new-old country of Hungary politically, socially, educationally and economically and the countervailing pressures under which its weak government operated. She uses copious documentation - including poignant eye-witness descriptions and observations by people who had lived through (and sometimes died as a result) to buttress her points.
She portrays an antiquated social structure with an aristocracy with an equally aristocratic mentality hung over from the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s court, a merchant and industrial class many of whom were well integrated Jews and crucial to the country’s economy, a weak military constrained by the post-World War I settlement imposed upon the country, a largely uneducated peasantry and the desperate need for land reform and an educational system that played at educating the villagers but failed to do enough.
Land reform, however, did not happen until after the Communists took control – and although the estates were demolished - the peasants were then forced into communal farming substituting one overlord for another. And as history has proven, communal farms have never worked well anywhere.
Cornelius also describes how the Hungarians – until the coup by its ultra-right wing Arrow Cross Party in conjunction with Hitler late in the war – had worked to protect Hungary’s Jewish citizens among them political, diplomatic and economic leaders– especially those in Budapest - while appeasing the Nazis by providing troops to fight the Soviets, weapons for the Third Reich’s war machine and food and cloth for German citizens. This at the expense of Hungarian civilians and the country’s poorly equipped and trained army. One of her most poignant descriptions is the section devoted to the inhumane treatment of Hungarian Jews after the imposition of Arrow Cross rule and German occupation and the desperate and heroic attempts made by Christians – both Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy – and diplomats to save them.
This is a lengthy, tightly argued, meticulously researched and written book drawing upon sources that began to open in the late 1980s as Soviet influence in the region waned. Many of Cornelius’ observations about the society and politics of the times should be read as lessons for today in more countries than Hungary. Meanwhile, for anyone planning to work or conduct research in Central Europe – including American diplomats and Fulbright students, scholars and professors - this is a book that will provide valuable insights into the country, the people and the region even today. This is a book, however, that cannot be read overnight. It takes time to digest.
Cornelius began her research for Hungary in World War II in 2001as archival material became accessible and people themselves became more willing to talk about this painful past but she had previously been a Fulbright Scholar in Hungary in 1987, had written her master’s thesis on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and had had personal and scholarly connections with Hungary since 1957.
Unforeseen costs of the destruction of empires
If there’s one single overarching point that Cornelius’ thoughtful work brings to the fore for me, however, it is the unforeseen and largely negative consequences of the destruction of empires especially when that destruction is imposed by the victors at the expense of the vanquished. Wars and invasions are costly for generations thereafter and are more likely to cause unwanted and unpredictable upheavals in their wake – intended or not.
Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron, New York: Fordham University Press, 2011, pp. 519.