Background in History


In the early 1930s, Nazi-style parties were formed, one after the other. They achieved poor results in the 1935 elections since at this point there was no mass support for radicalism in Hungarian society. Big capitalists of Jewish played a vital role in the functioning of the Horthy regime, therefore the government did not introduce new discriminatory laws even including Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, who followed fascist ideals. By the second half of the 1930s, however, social divisions had sharpened, as a large part of the rural peasantry and the urban working class had shifted to the extreme right. In 1938, Nazi Germany became Hungary’s next-door neighbor, narrowing the room for foreign policy maneuvers. The tragic chain of events culminated in Hungary’s participation in World War II on the side of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.


In 1938, during the prime ministership of Kálmán Darányi, a series of Jewish laws were introduced in the spirit of the Nuremberg Race Laws. By 1939, the extreme right Arrow Cross Party led by Ferenc Szálasi had already received more than one million votes, giving them a significant representation in parliament. Its ideologist was Szálasi himself, aiming to unite nationalism, socialism, and Christianity independent of the church. The undermining of the existential status of Jewry continued. By 1942, those who qualified as a Jew were not allowed to buy land, those who owned land were deprived of it, and the Israelite religion was removed from the list of recognized denominations.


As the main political objective was still to regain the annexed territories in the Trianon treaty, Hungary formed an alliance with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. In 1938 and 1940, with Italian and German help, Hungary managed to regain some of the annexed territories through diplomatic channels, under the so-called Vienna Decisions. Ultimately, however, the policy of revisionism led to the entry into the war against the Soviet Union, on the side of Nazi Germany.

The Hungarian government under Miklós Kállay was, however, a reluctant ally. In the spirit of „swing politics”, Hungarian diplomacy began secret armistice negotiations with the Allied powers in the autumn of 1943. While Kállay was looking for a way out of the war, he complied with German wishes and sent the Second Hungarian Army to the Don River, which suffered a disastrous defeat. In addition, a new law forbade Jews to marry Christians and imposed compulsory labor service on Hungarian citizens who qualified as Jews.


The Germans became suspicious of Kállay’s activities. On March 15, 1944, Hitler invited Horthy to a meeting at his hunting lodge in Klessheim, where he informed him that he plans to invade Hungary and asked for Horthy’s prior approval. The governor took note of the decision under duress and ordered the General Staff not to take armed action against the invading Germans.

  1. At dawn on 19 March 1944, German troops entered Hungary. Horthy appointed the former ambassador to Berlin, the pro-Nazi Döme Sztójay, as head of government. Among his first measures, he ordered Jews to wear the yellow star. Jews were not allowed to go to the cinema or the theater with Christians, they were banned from beaches and baths, and their food rations were reduced. The hunt for Jews started, first with raids and arrests on public squares, and in their homes. Later they became subjects to confinement in ghettos and concentration camps, and finally, deportation.

In September 1944, Miklós Horthy attempted to switch sides in the war but failed. On October 15, the governor’s proclamation to end the fight on the side of Germany was broadcast on the radio. However, the pro-German general staff officers of the army did not transmit the order to the fighting units. The Germans took Budapest under military control and took Horthy’s son hostage, forcing the appointment of Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross Party. By this time the Soviet Red Army was already advancing inside Hungary. By December, the blockade around Budapest was complete and its siege began. Unbothered by the recent developments, the Arrow Cross members, enjoying unrestricted power, went on a mass killing spree in the capital.

  1. The day the German army invaded Hungary (March 19, 1944) there were more than 800,000 people identified as Jews in the country. Up to that point, there had been no systematic pogroms or deportations. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Office, told Prime Minister Döme Sztójay that Hungary “must first and foremost solve the Jewish question, following the example of the surrounding countries”. Sztójay did not need to be told twice. The first trains for Auschwitz left on May 15, 1944. Over the next 55 days, 437,000 people – the entire Jewish population of the countryside, were deported to the death camps in Poland, with the active participation of Hungarian state authorities. Eventually, at the time of the Normandy invasion and the bombing of Budapest, Horthy ordered the trains to be stopped, sparing the lives of 200-250 000 Jews in the capital.

The period between the winter of 1944 and the early spring of 1945 brought the fall of Budapest, the fall of Szálasi, and total Soviet occupation of the country. The situation resembled the chaos of the post-First-World War period. The Hungarian state was once again on the brink of complete disintegration. In the Hungarian Holocaust, 40% of the Jews in Budapest and about 75% of the Jews in the countryside perished. The number of Jewish Holocaust victims in Hungary is estimated between 440,000 and 460,000, while the Roma Holocaust victims number between 50,000 and 70,000. The second world conflagration claimed around 1 million Hungarian lives and caused immeasurable material damage. Also, it soon became apparent that the Red Army would not be leaving the country for a long time.


Gosztonyi Péter: Magyarország a második világháborúban. I-III. HERP, 1984.

Gyurgyák János: A zsidókérdés Magyarországon. Osiris, 2001.

Romsics Ignác: A Horthy-korszak. Válogatott tanulmányok. Helikon, 2017.

Ungváry Krisztián: A Horthy-rendszer mérlege. Jelenkor, 2014.