The events of 1944
Vitéz nagybányai Horthy Miklós´s role during the Second World War has been the subject of historical discussion throught the years. Horthy has been criticized for his actions during the war and his critics often point out the fact that he alone was responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary as well as Hungarys alliance with Nazi-Germany. History is however never black and white.
In August 1944, Romania withdrew from the Axis and turned on Hitler and his allies. This development, a sign of the failing German war effort, led Horthy to reconsolidate his position. He ousted Sztójay and the other Nazi-friendly ministers installed the preceding spring, replacing them with a new government under Géza Lakatos. He stopped the mass deportations of Jews and ordered the police to use deadly force if the Germans attempted to resume them. While some smaller groups continued to be deported by train, the Germans did not press Horthy to ramp the pace back up to pre-August levels. Indeed, when Horthy turned down Eichmann’s request to restart the deportations, Heinrich Himmler ordered Eichmann to return to Germany.
Horthy also renewed peace feelers to the Allies and began considering strategies for surrendering to the Allied force he distrusted the most: the Red Army. Although Horthy was still bitterly anti-Communist, his dealings with the Nazis led him to conclude that the Soviets were the far lesser evil. Working through his trustworthy General Béla Miklós, who was in contact with Soviet forces in eastern Hungary, Horthy sought to surrender to the Soviets while preserving the Hungarian government’s autonomy. The Soviets willingly promised this, and on 11 October Horthy and the Soviets finally agreed to surrender terms. On 15 October 1944, Horthy told his government ministers that Hungary had signed an armistice with the Soviet Union. He said, “It is clear today that Germany has lost the war… Hungary has accordingly concluded a preliminary armistice with Russia and will cease all hostilities against her.” Horthy “…informed a representative of the German Reich that we were about to conclude a military armistice with our former enemies and to cease all hostilities against them.”
The Nazis had anticipated Horthy’s move. On 15 October, after Horthy announced the armistice in a nationwide radio address, Hitler initiated Operation Panzerfaust, sending commando Otto Skorzeny to Budapest with instructions to remove Horthy from power. Horthy’s son Miklós Horthy, Jr., was meeting with Soviet representatives to finalize the surrender when Skorzeny and his troops forced their way into the meeting and kidnapped the younger Horthy at gunpoint. Trussed up in a carpet, Miklós Jr. was immediately driven to the airport and flown to Germany to serve as a hostage. Skorzeny then brazenly led a convoy of German troops and four Tiger II tanks to the Vienna Gates of Castle Hill, where the Hungarians had been ordered not to resist. Though one unit had not received the order, the Germans quickly captured Castle Hill with minimal bloodshed: only seven soldiers were killed and twenty-six wounded.
Horthy was captured by Veesenmayer and his staff later on the 15th and taken to the Waffen SS office, where he was held overnight. Vessenmayer told Horthy that unless he recanted the armistice and abdicated, his son would be killed the next morning. The fascist Arrow Cross Party swiftly took over Budapest. With his son’s life in the balance, Horthy consented to sign a document officially abdicating his office and naming Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Arrow Cross, as both head of state and prime minister. Horthy understood that the Germans merely wanted the stamp of his prestige on a Nazi-sponsored Arrow Cross coup, but he signed anyway. As he later explained his capitulation: “I neither resigned nor appointed Szálasi Premier. I merely exchanged my signature for my son’s life. A signature wrung from a man at machine-gun point can have little legality.”
Horthy met Skorzeny three days later at Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s apartment and was told he would be transported to Germany. Skorzeny told Horthy that he would be a “guest of honour” in a secure Bavarian castle. On 17 October, Horthy was personally kidnapped by Skorzeny to captivity at Schloss Hirschberg in Bavaria, where he was guarded closely.
With the help of the SS, the Arrow Cross leadership moved swiftly to take command of the Hungarian armed forces, and to prevent the surrender that Horthy had arranged, even though Soviet troops were now deep inside the country. Szálasi resumed persecution of Jews and other “undesirables”. In the three months between November 1944 and January 1945, Arrow Cross death squads shot 10,000 to 15,000 Jews on the banks of the Danube. The Arrow Cross also welcomed Adolf Eichmann back to Budapest, where he began the deportation of the city’s surviving Jews.
By December 1944, Budapest was under siege by Soviet forces. The Arrow Cross leadership retreated across the Danube into the hills of Buda in late January, and by February the city surrendered to the Soviet forces. Horthy remained under house arrest in Bavaria until the war in Europe ended. On 29 April 1945, his SS guardians fled in the face of the Allied advance. On 1 May, Horthy was first liberated, and then arrested, by elements of the U.S. 7th Army.