- Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron by Deborah S. Cornelius
Hungary does not—but could very well—form a part of Timothy Snyder’s famous monograph Bloodlands (2011), on the vast region extending from the Baltic States to the Black Sea and from the German-Polish border to the eastern part of the Ukraine. Here is a region that suffered endless cruelty, hatred, civil wars, deportations, and genocide in the interwar years and during World War II. In Hungary, perhaps a million people from among thirteen million inhabitants (depending on which political boundaries one considers as valid in an eternally fluid situation) died from unnatural causes. About half of the victims were Jews, killed mostly by the Germans but delivered into their hands by the Hungarian authorities, with the approval of much of the population. No wonder then, that the debate still rages as to who was responsible for Hungary’s defeat in two world wars; its truncation after World War I and its devastation during World War II; the Holocaust; the moral collapse; and the massive flights and expulsions. Because only a few of Hungary’s many excellent historians have attempted to write a comprehensive national history of the period, one must laud Deborah Cornelius’s effort to achieve such an important goal. One would laud her unconditionally had she shown a little more balance in her treatment of Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy’s regime—a government that guided, and more often than not misguided Hungary in the interwar and the World War II years. [End Page 500]
An American historian with a long-standing interest in Hungarian affairs, Cornelius used her respectable facility with languages to read extensively on the subject, examining among other sources many hitherto unknown diaries and reminiscences. But one’s confidence in her diligence is weakened by her rather categorical statements, on the very first page, that under the Communist regime “history was presented from the Soviet point of view” and that, according to Hungarian historiography, “all political and military leaders of the period were war criminals.” One wonders why someone so well versed in modern Hungarian historiography has omitted to mention the substantial research and often sensational revelations of outstanding historians such as György Ránki, Gyula Juhász, Péter Hanák, and others. None ever called all Hungarian leaders of the period war criminals; on the contrary, they devoted considerable attention to, for instance, Prime Minister Miklós Kállay’s and former Prime Minister Count István Bethlen’s attempts to lead Hungary out of the war and to Minister of Defense General Vilmos Nagy’s efforts to improve conditions for Jews in the army’s forced labor battalions. Soviet-style history had been left behind many years before the fall of Soviet power.
Cornelius writes agreeably, and one would read her account even of sad events with pleasure if a subtle bias would not so often weaken her argument. Why condemn the brutalities of the Hungarian Republic of Soviets in 1919 unconditionally but seemingly excuse the no less serious, in fact greater brutality of Horthy’s counter-revolution by blaming the excesses on “paramilitary detachments” (p. 24)? She writes as if these bands, made up mostly of army officers, would not have been Horthy’s closest companions. More important, she does not explain that while the Republic of Soviets was at least trying to defend the country against Czechoslovak, Romanian, and South-Slav invaders intent on grabbing more and more territory in defiance of the armistice agreements, Horthy and his companions availed themselves of the protection of the French army, which itself had encouraged Hungary’s further truncation. Nor did Horthy’s National Army fire a single shot at the foreign invaders or at the Hungarian Red Army, but was satisfied with murdering suspected Communists and quite especially Jews. Horthy’s preference for the country’s enemies over its Communist defenders helps to explain the regime’s super-nationalism and avowed...