Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918-1944

Article excerpt

Thomas Sakmyster. Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918-1944. Boulder, CO: Eastern European Monographs; distributed by Columbia University Press, 1994. x, 476. Illustrations. $50.00, cloth.

Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary's head-of-state from 1920 to 1944, is one the most controversial statesmen in modern Hungarian history. His name has been linked to the White Terror of 1919; he is also reputed to have been the chief architect of the "semi-feudal order" that prevailed in Hungary after 1920. However, in the eyes of many, his greatest "crime" was Hungary's involvement in World War II on the side of the Axis.

Half-a-century later, his name still stirs up emotions. Indicative of this is the acrimony that accompanied his reburial in Hungarian soil in 1993. Although transferring his remains from Lisbon (where he died in 1957), to Kenderes (where he was born in 1868) was only the implementation of his deathbed wish, there was an outpouring of opposition to the idea both inside and outside Hungary. Horthy will undoubtedly remain a controversial figure even though Sakmyster's book should help to reduce the controversy surrounding him, at least in the scholarly circles of the English-speaking world.

Sakmyster suggests that the negative image Horthy has had throughout the years is largely undeserved. Few people know, for example, that during the last months of his rule not a single Jew was deported from Hungary to Nazi concentration camps. It amounts to a miracle that this can be said of an Axis country whose capital in 1944 had the largest concentration of Jews in Central Europe, at a time when for Hitler the solution of the "Jewish problem" seems to have had greater priority then Germany's struggle against the Allies. Indeed, as Adolf Eichman remarked during his trial in Jerusalem, Horthy's was the only Axis country during the war where the military was used to protect Jews! And there is more that can be said in favour of Horthy. He could have suppressed all leftist opposition parties in wartime Hungary, but he refused to do so. Though the Communist Party was banned in Hortyite Hungary, in Horthy's prisons Hungarian communists were more secure than their exiled comrades were in Stalin's Russia. As Sakmyster concludes: "It was largely through his influence that [before its occupation by the Wehrmacht in March 1944] Hungary was... an island in the heart of Hitler's Europe where a semblance of the rule of law and a pluralistic society had been preserved..." (p. 400).

We may ask why is it that this man, whose country in early 1944 was an island of civility in a "sea of barbarism," acquired quite a negative reputation? The explanation stems from the fact that, ever since his coming to power in 1920, Horthy has been vilified in many quarters. In 1919 thousands of the participants of Hungary's postwar revolutions left the country. Most of them were well-educated individuals who became influential publicists wherever they settled. Many of them waged a propaganda war against the regime whose existence made their life in exile necessary. At the same time, Little Entente spokesmen had their own reasons for blackening Horthy's reputation. Though Horthy ceased to play a role in Hungary's politics after October 1944, his detractors continued to denounce him for years.

Another reason for Horthy's negative image was the fact that the communist regime of post-World War II Hungary considered him as the incarnation of the evil against which progressive people everywhere had to fight. The result was the outpouring of anti-Horthy propaganda both at home and abroad. …