The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II
Hell and Liberation
A review by Istv?n De
It was a peaceful scene at the cogwheel-train terminal at the top of a hill on
the Buda side of Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944, as passengers waited for a ride
into town. For nearly two months now they had been hearing the guns of the Soviet
artillery in the east, but not many people in this rather prosperous part of Buda
had relatives or acquaintances in the poorer eastern outskirts of Pest to worry
about. Suddenly a group of soldiers appeared on the platform, carrying unfamiliar-looking
submachine guns and revealing a strange uniform under their white overalls. They
were an advance party of the Soviet Red Army. They quietly boarded the train with
the other passengers and, as legend relates, promptly relieved some civilians
of their watches. With the completely unexpected appearance of the Russians in
the western part of the Hungarian capital, the iron ring around the city closed
almost completely, and one of the most dramatic sieges in World War II history
The Siege of Budapest is an exceedingly dramatic book, filled with fascinating stories, some of them even humorous, and with heart-rending accounts of suffering, limitless cruelty, and amazing decency. It also contains detailed accounts of battle plans, logistics, troop movements, and casualty statistics. In his valuable foreword, John Lukacs rightly observes that "as a military history [the book] is unrivaled."
I spent part of my childhood only a few steps from the cogwheel-train line, and I can easily visualize the scene as it is described in Ungváry's extraordinary book. As he makes clear -- and as those from that quarter of Buda know well -- the sudden appearance of the victorious Red Army did not amount to a peaceful takeover. For the next six weeks, the front stagnated near the cogwheel line. Thousands of civilians and soldiers in the area were killed; hundreds of buildings crumbled under bombardment; the Hungarian Arrow Cross militia massacred the patients of three Jewish hospitals just a few steps behind the front; wounded prisoners were shot dead on both sides; and Red Army soldiers raped and looted to their hearts' delight. Finally, on February 11, 1944, as the last German and Hungarian troops tried to break out toward the west from Castle Hill in Buda, the streets near the lower cogwheel terminal became clogged with dead bodies and wrecked cars.
Ungváry first made a name for himself in the late 1990s as one of the major critics of the famous (and infamous) German traveling exhibition on crimes committed by the Wehrmacht, the regular German armed forces, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The exhibition, set up by a privately funded institute in Hamburg, successfully demolished the self-exculpatory German myth that only the SS was guilty, especially of the massacre of the Jews. Unfortunately, the moral and political significance of the exhibit was marred by the exhibitors' zealous dogmatism and hasty generalizations. As the Polish historian Bogdan Musial has demonstrated, many of the photographs allegedly depicting Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian victims of Wehrmacht massacres actually showed victims of the NKVD, the Soviet political police. And Ungváry proved, in a memorable essay, that several of the alleged Wehrmacht murderers pictured in the exhibit were not Germans but Hungarians, Finns, and Croats. Considering that Ungváry is a Hungarian patriot and the proud scion of a family of soldiers, his spontaneous unmasking of Hungarian cruelties testifies to his objectivity. Yet Ungváry went further, claiming that only about 10 percent of the nearly one thousand photos actually showed the Wehrmacht committing crimes.
Ungváry carefully distinguishes between the killing of innocent Jews and the brutalities that attend partisan warfare on all sides. He also separates those who did the actual killing -- in the case of the Jews, often only a handful of SS men equipped with machine guns -- from those who collected and guarded the Jews or escorted them to the place of execution. By making these distinctions, Ungváry does not wish to exculpate these partners in crime, but only to show that an enormous number of people -- ordinary German soldiers; Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian civilians and SS men; Hungarian and Romanian soldiers and gendarmes; Czech, French, Dutch, and Norwegian policemen; and so on -- participated in the Final Solution. Only in the case of Serbia can one state unequivocally that the killing of the Jews and the Serbs was done exclusively by regular German army units.
As a result of the campaign mounted by Musial, Ungváry, and others, the exhibition about the Wehrmacht was closed down in Germany in 1999, and the projected showing of the pictures in New York never took place. The critics' arguments had other serious consequences. They added fuel to the fire of the Germans who were denying any Wehrmacht culpability in the Holocaust, and at the same time they showed that the SS did not carry sole responsibility for the killings, nor did even the Germans in general, but that millions of Europeans were involved in the genocide in one way or another. In an even more recent book, as yet untranslated, which deals with the history of the Hungarian armed forces during World War II, Ungváry presents for the first time a detailed map of the places in the Soviet Union where the Hungarian army of occupation played a crucial role in the systematic extermination of Jews.
Ungváry is a researcher at the Budapest Institute for the History of the 1956 Revolution (and a respected connoisseur and grower of Tokaj wines). He is certainly one of the most intellectually stimulating scholars in Hungary, and also a public figure whose pronouncements in the media create considerable excitement. The problem is that sometimes, as occasionally in The Siege of Budapest, his political message is hard to follow. In his arduous pursuit of truth as he sees it, Ungváry hits left and right. He has publicly and violently castigated the controversial House of Terror, created in Budapest by Hungary's previous conservative-nationalist government, for overplaying communist atrocities and for not paying sufficient attention to the violent anti-Semitism of the right-wing regimes during World War II. Similarly, he has set himself against the cult of Count Pál Teleki, who, as prime minister in 1941, committed suicide rather than help the Germans attack Yugoslavia but was also an unrelenting Jew-hater.
Ungváry also goes out of his way, or so it seems to many, to emphasize that the Bolsheviks and the Nazis were two equally criminal regimes; and he subscribes to the increasingly popular notion, especially in Germany, that Germany's attack on the Soviet Union came in the nick of time before the Soviet Union attacked Germany. In a significant scholarly article, unfortunately available only in Hungarian, Ungváry marshals strong evidence to show that in 1941 Stalin was preparing to attack Nazi Germany. Ungváry does not claim, as some German nationalist historians have done, that the Germans fought a preventive war; the reality, in his view, was that two evil aggressors clashed in June 1941. Still, one must object that finally it was Germany that sent its bombers, tanks, and soldiers into Soviet Russia and not the other way around. Nor does Ungváry's thesis of mutual aggression explain why Operation Barbarossa caught Stalin by surprise, with the result that millions of Soviet soldiers and nearly one-half of the Soviet Union's industrial base were lost immediately.
It is difficult to disagree with Ungváry regarding the often abominable behavior of the Red Army soldiers in liberated Budapest, yet he himself often repeats, especially in his book on the Hungarian army, that the Soviet crimes in Central Europe were preceded by the abominable behavior of the Axis occupation forces in the Soviet Union. The question of cause and effect cannot be smoothed over by talk about equal guilt.
True, as Ungváry explains, the Germans, Hungarians, and others in Ukraine seldom raped local women, nor did they kill whole families while in a drunken stupor, which Red Army soldiers did in Central Europe. But all this still pales in comparison with the Germans' systematic murder of about five million Eastern European Jews, and the extermination, mainly through starvation, of at least three million Soviet prisoners of war. Soviet, Ukrainian, and Polish partisans, whether communist, non-communist, or anti-communist, had no hesitation about torturing, mutilating, and killing their Axis captives. (Except in such regions where there was a silent agreement of mutual toleration between the nationalist, non-Bolshevik partisans on the one side and the Hungarian occupation forces on the other side.) It is also true that the Soviet High Command considered the act of surrendering to the enemy a capital offense, which led many isolated and surrounded Soviet units to hide in the forests and join the partisans.
Hungary joined Operation Barbarossa on June 26, 1941, four days after the beginning of the German attack -- in part, as Ungváry points out, so as not to enter the fray too late behind Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia, thereby showing insufficient gratitude to the Führer, who helped Hungary regain parts of the territories it had lost to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia after 1918. The counter-revolutionary establishment's unrelenting anti-communism also played a role in that attack. Yet, as Ungváry rightly points out, the war was unpopular in Hungary, especially among the millions of poor people who had no fear of communism.
In The Siege of Budapest, and in his book on the Hungarian army, Ungváry demonstrates convincingly how ridiculously unprepared the country was for waging a major war. While those at home lived as in peacetime, the army moved to the front in miniature Italian tanks that a rifle bullet could pierce, in private automobiles and trucks confiscated from businesses, in peasant carts (which turned out to be useful at least in snow and mud), and on bicycles. The Hungarians had proportionally fewer weapons than any other army in the campaign, and it was not unusual to see units move up to the trenches without firearms in the hope of receiving the weapons of those they were about to replace. All this may be explained by the country's poverty, and by the fact that the Paris peace treaties had forbidden Hungary to maintain more than a minuscule army. But then why go to war, especially as Germany did not at first ask for Hungarian participation?
The result of these shortcomings was a military defeat nearly unparalleled in the history of a country already rich in military defeats. In the winter of 1942-1943, the Hungarian Second Army -- that is, the entire Hungarian force at the front -- was destroyed at the same time as the Germans were surrendering at Stalingrad. The majority of the two hundred thousand or so Hungarian soldiers fell in battle, or were taken prisoner, or succumbed to typhus, or froze to death. Sharing the fate of the soldiers were some forty thousand Jewish slave laborers, who, if they were not murdered by their Hungarian guards or by the harsh Russian winter, were treated as poorly in Soviet captivity as the "Christian" soldiers.
Ungváry seems to be the first historian to show that several Hungarian units at the front contained an absolute majority of Romanians, Slovaks, and Ruthenes (or Carpatho-Ukrainians), who had even less incentive to fight than the Magyar-speaking peasant recruits. Interestingly, under direct Soviet attack some Jewish forced laborers picked up castaway weapons in order to stop the attackers. After all, as Ungváry writes, the Jews, too, preferred Hungarian oppression to Soviet prison camps. Other writers, both Jewish and anti-Semitic, have claimed that Jews picked up weapons in order to fight as anti-Nazi partisans. Some of them later returned to Hungary as communist liberators. The Jewish slave laborers, too, had varied political convictions.
Following the annihilation of Hungary's Second Army at the Don River, the government began cautiously to explore the possibility of surrendering to the Western allies, who were nowhere to be seen. By late 1943, Hungary was in many ways a neutral country; this caused Hitler to lose patience and, on March 19, 1944, to send his troops into the country. The Germans' goal was to keep Hungary in the war and, simultaneously, to solve the "Jewish Question." Despite all the anti-Semitic legislation as well as the constant anti-Semitic agitation in the press, there were still nearly eight hundred thousand persons in the country whom the law regarded as Jews. Most people within this number, which was then the largest surviving Jewish community in Hitler's Europe, lived fairly normal lives, sometimes even prosperous ones.
Not only was there no resistance in Hungary to the German occupation, but under Nazi pressure Regent Miklós Horthy, the uncrowned semi-constitutional ruler of Hungary, appointed a pro-Nazi cabinet, which did its utmost to mobilize the population and the economy for war. It also began deporting the Jews to German-held lands. Between May and July 1944, Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian authorities expedited some 437,000 Jews to Auschwitz. But early in July Horthy at last drew the line, forbidding the deportation of 200,000 Budapest Jews. A large number of the latter were still alive in December 1944, when the city's siege began.
Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Red Army kept getting closer to the borders of Hungary, and after Romania changed sides, on August 23, 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops suddenly appeared in the then-Hungarian-ruled northern part of Transylvania. I was a member of a labor company in the region at the time, and was treated to the hitherto unimaginable spectacle of a fleeing German army. Dirty and ragged infantrymen, airmen, sailors, East European auxiliaries, Romanian and Soviet POWs: whether walking or crammed into boxcars, they rushed into the fields to chew sunflower seeds at every opportunity.
Now, finally, the Hungarians began to think of surrendering even to the hated Bolshevik enemy. The attempt failed, because on October 16, SS soldiers and paratroopers arrested the regent and replaced him with Ferenc Szálasi, the unbalanced leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party. As "Leader of the Nation," he filled the entire first session of the "Crown Council," on November 2, 1944, with a rant about Hungarian-Japanese relations and the need for Germany, Japan, and Hungary to divide the Asiatic sphere.
When Szálasi came to power as the Germans' very last resort, the Red Army was already deep in Hungary, winning a crucial tank battle some one hundred miles east of the Hungarian capital. Early in The Siege of Budapest, Ungváry provides a transcript of a telephone conversation on October 28, 1944 between Stalin and Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the commander of the so-called Second Ukrainian Front, a vast group of armies. Stalin ordered Malinovsky to seize Budapest in five days -- an impossible task, as Ungváry convincingly demonstrates. The main reason for the Soviet dictator's impatience was his desire to demonstrate to the Western allies that Hungary was within his sphere of interest. This haste resulted in enormous losses on the Soviet side, and in Stalin's decision to move another group of armies, Marshal Fedor Tolbukhin's Third Ukrainian Front, from Serbia to Hungary. This latter group of armies then crossed the Danube far to the south of Budapest, and while Malinovsky's forces were trying to cross the same river immediately south of the capital, Tolbukhin's soldiers moved up in Transdanubia from the southwest, meeting almost no resistance. On December 24, they suddenly encircled the city.
If Stalin saw the capture of Budapest as a political necessity, Hitler saw its defense with similar political urgency. Besides, there was the need to protect the Hungarian oil fields in the southwestern part of the country: they were the Third Reich's last source of natural fuel. Thus it came about that, while the Soviet army was poised in central Poland for an attack on Warsaw, Hitler withdrew the crack Fourth SS Panzer Corps from that front and threw it into the battle in Hungary. Now half the German tanks in the east were engaged in Hungary, which had become Hitler's favorite battlefield. In order to re-conquer Budapest, the Führer later also transferred his best force in the west, the Sixth SS Panzer Army, to Hungary.
In January, the Russians broke through the central front in Poland, and within a few weeks they were only forty miles east of Berlin. But even this mortal threat did not stop Hitler from sending more troops to Hungary and ordering offensive after offensive there. It is amazing to consider that at the end of March, when American forces were already in Frankfurt and the Red Army was just a few miles east of Berlin, massive German armies held out in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Baltic countries, the Czech lands, Austria, Croatia, Italy, and Hungary.
When Budapest was surrounded, at Christmas-time 1944, a few streetcars were still able to cross the front lines with people returning home from holiday shopping. Family members called each other with the news that "Ivan is here," and when the Hungarian central military command telephoned some local military and police stations, it was often a Russian voice that answered. But this somewhat romantic and colorful moment of the siege soon gave way to terrible fighting and a breakdown of all public and private services. First the streetcars stopped running; then stores closed (except for some bakeries that persevered for an astonishingly long time); later electricity, gas, and the telephone became unavailable; and finally water no longer came through the faucets, except in a few places in the city. All this, with nearly eighty thousand German and Hungarian soldiers and well over eight hundred thousand civilians trapped within the city. Ungváry takes some pride in demonstrating that in Leningrad, where there were more civilians and where the siege lasted nine hundred days, the fighting was not within the city, as it was in Budapest; and that in Stalingrad, most of the civilians had been evacuated before the arrival of the Germans, unlike in Budapest; and that the sieges of Berlin and Vienna were shorter; and finally that Rome, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Oslo, Copenhagen, Athens, Sofia, Bucharest, and Belgrade all fell with little or no fighting. Among the capital cities, only the fate of Warsaw was more tragic than the fate of Budapest.
To make matters worse, there was not even a semblance of a central authority in the besieged city. After the Arrow Cross government had fled to the west, district party and militia units were vying for power with the remnants of the state and municipal authorities, the police, and the commanders of the Hungarian and German military. Oddly, the one Arrow Cross newspaper left in the besieged part of the city admonished the block administrators, as late as February 9, in the midst of complete chaos, to remit rents instantly to the City Council. One wonders how well this order was obeyed, considering that mortar shells and bombs rained incessantly. Yet the Soviet bombers did not wreak as much damage in Budapest as the Anglo-American bombers wreaked in Berlin, Hamburg, or Dresden. When it was all over, it turned out that the great majority of the city's dwellings were still habitable, if one can call it habitation when a part of an apartment is missing (as was the case in my family's apartment), or a huge unexploded bomb is sitting in the bathtub (as happened in the house of a friend of mine), or the building is nearly intact but inside the furniture is smashed and excrement is piled up in the grand piano, compliments of the liberators.
As Ungváry carefully explains, nearly forty thousand civilians died unnatural deaths during the siege. But how did so many survive? The answer is that Budapest was in many ways still an old-fashioned place where wells could be re-opened, and where several artesian springs spewed hot and cold water. In both the grand apartment houses and the proletarian tenements, there existed large cellars where each tenant had his little compartment and where coal, firewood, and food could be kept. There were also the horses of the military, some thirty thousand of them, who roamed the streets gnawing on park benches and tree bark until hungry neighbors set upon them with axes and kitchen knives. Life in the cellars could be horrifying, but occasionally also quite jolly, as many memoirs attest. Light was provided by pieces of string planted into shoe wax, just enough illumination for the happy initiation of many a teenage boy and girl into the mysteries of love.
The fighting was excruciatingly slow and difficult, as it always seems to be in urban areas. Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress, but there was nothing fortress-like in this huge urban sprawl, half of which, the Buda side, consisted mostly of hills. Ungváry explains how cosmopolitan the fighting forces were: on the Soviet side, nearly all the nationalities of the Soviet Union, including such Balts, Ukrainians, and Poles whom the Red Army had picked up in liberated territory, many of whom had been POWs or nationalist, anti-Soviet partisans. There was also an entire Romanian army corps on the Soviet side that fought bravely but some of whom, along with their commander, later landed in Soviet jails or concentration camps. On the other side, one found, besides the Hungarians and the Germans from the Reich, many Austrians as well as ethnic Germans from the region who had been drafted into the SS and often spoke no German or only a dialect that a German from the Reich could not understand. In addition, there were the volunteers, recruited into the SS from among the peoples of the Soviet Union as well as Alsatians, Frenchmen, Serbs, Slovaks, Spanish volunteers, Scandinavians, and others.
The quality of the troops varied enormously: a large part of the Soviet troops seem to have been leaderless drifters or outright deserters who obeyed no one. Not that the regular Soviet soldiers typically obeyed their officers. The most common sight in Budapest was drunken soldiers exchanging fisticuffs with their officers, or yelling at each other without distinction of rank. Had it not been for the elite "Guards" units and other shock troops, it is hard to see how the Red Army could have made any progress at all. On the German side, quality also varied from the utter dedication of the Reich German Waffen SS to the relative unreliability of the locally recruited Waffen SS units. What drove all the Germans, though, was the realization that surrender would, in all likelihood, bring death, immediate or slow.
The quality of the Hungarian troops varied from bad to terrible, at least if we are to believe the German commanders who competed with each other, after the war, in blaming Hitler and the Hungarians for the disaster at Budapest. It is true that, as Ungváry shows, most Hungarian regulars had only one desire: namely, to find civilian clothes and then melt into the population. The sorriest spectacle of all must have been presented by the postmen, streetcar conductors, and policemen whom the Arrow Cross leaders threw into the battle without any training or usable weapons. In fact, some police battalions were destroyed only after the Soviet commanders had first ascertained the nationality of these strange opponents in blue uniforms with French-type helmets. The only dedicated fighters among the Hungarians seemed to have been some young volunteers, mostly high school and university students assembled into ad hoc battalions. Why these youngsters considered the ruin of the capital and their own untimely deaths a worthwhile goal remains a mystery.
The Red Army at first concentrated on Pest, the eastern half of the city, moving gradually from the suburbs into the center. Some neighborhoods saw little if any combat, and their inhabitants barely noticed that they had changed sides. In eastern Pest, where I spent the last two weeks before the liberation, the coming of the Red Army was marked only by the sudden disappearance of a German heavy mortar battery from the neighboring building. Not that its soldiers had done much fighting; their ammunition allowed only for one or two launchings a day. These young boys from Cologne had spent the rest of the time trying to fraternize with some young women in my cellar, who were all Jews in hiding.
The first wave of Soviet soldiers appeared markedly more mature than the Germans. They wore fur hats, greasy but highly useful padded uniforms, spoons stuck in their boots, and small sacks on their backs fastened with a piece of string, which seemed to contain all their worldly possessions. Our liberators arrived in near silence, and were friendly. The rabble came later, as did the total chaos and the debilitating uncertainty regarding the soldiers' intentions. With the Germans and even with the Arrow Cross, things were relatively simple: either they accepted your forged papers or they did not, and only in the latter case were you in mortal trouble. The Red Army soldiers were more casual with your hastily fabricated new papers. In any case, how were you to decide in an instant, when escape was still conceivable, whether the malenkii robot, the "little work" that the soldiers had invited you to perform, would mean as little as pushing a gun to another position or as much as an endless journey to Siberia with hardly a chance of return? An invitation to the women in the cellar to peel potatoes could mean precisely that, or a horrifying night with a bunch of drunken and often diseased soldiers. Meanwhile, the Nazi super, who had been hiding the Jewish women for money, demanded with increasing exasperation that his former wards protect him and his family against Red Army depredations. "After all," he kept repeating, "it was you Jews who had called in the Russians." And everywhere there was the blatant contradiction between reality and the gaudy Soviet posters, executed in a socialist realist style, extolling the superiority of the "Soviet Man."
In many parts of Pest there was bitter fighting, and the so-called Big Ghetto was liberated only on January 16, 1945, two days before the last German and Hungarian troops fled west, across the Danube. The survival of at least one hundred twenty thousand Jews in the Hungarian capital is a near-miraculous story, many times told, although barely known in the west. Suffice it to say here that even after the Arrow Cross had come to power and Eichmann had returned to Budapest to complete his work, there was to be no total annihilation of the Jews.
It is true that some fifty thousand were driven west, mostly on foot, to build fortifications on the Austrian border. (Auschwitz was out of commission by then.) It is also true that most of the deportees perished under the blows of Hungarian soldiers, Arrow Cross militia, and Austrian peasant youngsters. But the rest of the Budapest Jews were either driven into a newly created ghetto -- the only such institution in Europe at the time -- or were taken under the wing of neutral legations and assembled into so-called protected houses, which went by the name of Little or International Ghetto. That such ghettoes could be set up at all was due primarily to the Arrow Cross leadership's craving for recognition by the Vatican, Sweden, Switzerland, and other neutral countries. To achieve such a lofty international status became for the government more important than even the total elimination of the Hungarian Jews.
In addition to the seventy thousand Jews in the Big Ghetto and the thirty thousand Jews in the International Ghetto, at least twenty thousand Jews were hiding in the city, using forged papers and benefiting from the assistance of their non-Jewish neighbors. Now that nearly everybody was hiding for one reason or another, mostly to avoid military service or evacuation to the West, and now that the Red Army was approaching with the perceived threat of a terrible retribution, hiding one's Jewish acquaintances became a fairly common practice. Still, for the first time in Hungarian history, hiding a Jew, and even the failure to denounce a Jew, became a capital offense, and a few "righteous Gentiles" did indeed make the supreme sacrifice.
Those in the International Ghetto fared perhaps the worst, because the generous protection extended by the likes of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swiss consul Carl Lutz, the Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, and others could not include armed defense. This meant that armed hooligans from the Arrow Cross raided these houses almost nightly, dragging people to the Danube shore, where they were shot and pushed into the river. Ungváry estimates that at least three thousand perished this way, mainly from among the better-educated and wealthier Jews who had had the right connections to obtain genuine or forged letters of consular protection.
Poorer Jews languished in the Big Ghetto, where the walls surrounding the place, as well as some police patrols, were of help. Also, the municipality provided the ghetto with some food, as long as any food was available. Still, many died: those crowded into the Ghetto had no food reserves, and Arrow Cross gangs were roaming the streets. Ungváry claims that an SS-Arrow Cross plan for the last-minute extermination of all the inhabitants of the Big Ghetto was thwarted by the quick action of a renegade Arrow Cross officer and the Wehrmacht General Gerhard Schmidhuber (who was subsequently killed during the breakout). There does not seem to be evidence to prove that such a murderous plan ever existed.
Once liberated, the inhabitants of the ghetto had to learn quickly that being a Jewish survivor did not endear one to many Soviet soldiers. Some of the liberated Jews were grabbed and marched away to Siberia in order to help make up a mysteriously set quota for prisoners of war. But generally life in Pest returned to something like normal at an astonishing speed: peasants began to bring in food, expecting to be paid in gold or family possessions, and while the fighting was still continuing in Buda a movie house opened in central Pest. It showed the Soviet film The Battle of Orel, in which the audience was treated to the double thrill of being able to watch Soviet airplanes machine-gun and bomb the enemy first on the screen and then outside the theater. (I thought that only I recalled this extraordinary circumstance, but the very thorough Ungváry has found this story for his book, too.) Moreover, on February 4, 1945, with the war still raging in Buda, a revolutionary People's Court in Pest sentenced two war criminals to death. They were hanged in a public square, having nearly been lynched by Jewish survivors.
On January 18, after the remaining troops crossed over to Buda, the Germans blew up the last three of Budapest's seven magnificent bridges, most of them a tribute to the great expectations of the age of Franz Josef. Thereafter, and for several weeks to come, only a few daredevils could get from one half of the city to the other half, by walking on the cracking, shifting ice and then taking rowboats. Those who did the dangerous rowing among the ice blocks were mostly Red Army soldiers in boats they had liberated, including racing skiffs. For payment, the ferrymen were usually satisfied with a bottle of spirits.
Meanwhile, the Soviet ring around the defenders in Buda became ever tighter, until only Castle Hill was left, a historic height that had served as the residence of kings since medieval times. Conditions on Castle Hill, especially in the casemates and tunnels inside the mountain, defied the imagination. Basing his account mostly on recent memoirs, Ungváry describes the heartbreaking plight of the thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians who rotted alive in the heat and filth of the underground hospitals, all without food, light, or medicine.
Hitler forbade any attempt to break out of the encirclement. The last glider flights bringing in supplies landed a few days earlier, and parachute drops had also been discontinued. Finally the German commander, Waffen SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, decided to lead the remnants of his troops out. Typically, the Germans hardly ever consulted the Hungarian commander of the city. On the night of February 11, twenty-eight thousand German and Hungarian troops began to stream down from Castle Hill, followed by thousands of civilians. Entire families, pushing prams, treaded the snow and ice.
Amazingly, many of the Red Army troops panicked and ran ahead of the enemy that was itself running away; but soon the Russians rallied and mowed down the fugitives. Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, the Hungarian General Ivan Hindy, and other high brass attempted to escape through a long culvert covering a brook, but their bodies swelled in the water, and they were soon forced to climb out through manholes and were captured. Only seven hundred made it to the German-Hungarian side, a few dozen miles west of Budapest.
Beginning on December 22, 1944, Hungary had a democratic coalition government, set up by the Soviets in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary. Its head and two of its ministers were generals from the old regime; other cabinet members, including some crypto-communists, came from anti-Nazi circles; only the two official communist cabinet members arrived from Moscow. Needless to say, this government, and the new National Assembly, had only as much power--in fact, only as much food to eat--as the Soviets were willing to grant them. In the opposite camp, Ferenc Szálasi continued to proclaim his wild utopian ideas while his underlings terrorized what was left to them of Hungary. At the end of March, the entire Arrow Cross regime fled to Austria, together with several hundred thousand other Hungarians and much of the Hungarian national treasure, including the Holy Crown of St. Stephen and the gold of the National Bank. A year later, Szálasi and every member of his cabinet, as well as all the pro-Nazi leaders of the Horthy regime, were executed in Budapest. The former regent himself was allowed to settle in Portugal.
Within a year, Budapest was again a buoyant capital, but sixty years after the siege some buildings still bear the marks of machine gun and mortar fire. Remarkably, during the revolution of 1956, the Soviet army again besieged the city, but this time its defenders were a few thousand students and young workers. Their Molotov cocktails proved to be more efficient against the new giant Soviet tanks than the anti-tank guns of 1944-1945 had been.
It is hard to disagree with Ungváry's assertion that cities are extremely difficult to take if the defenders are willing to sacrifice both the population and themselves. Red Army and Romanian casualties in the struggle for the capital and in associated actions amounted to seventy thousand dead; every other Soviet soldier who died in Hungary gave his life for Budapest. German and Hungarian casualties are nearly impossible to estimate, but they were less than the Soviet losses. "The siege, from a Soviet point of view," Ungváry observes, "amounted to a series of defeats." Or, as a Soviet general wrote, Soviet "plans to reach Vienna by the end of December and southern Germany in March were upset mainly by the lengthy siege of the Hungarian capital." This means that, from a German point of view, the siege was a qualified success, because it delayed the arrival of the vengeful Soviet troops into German-speaking lands. Had this truly been the Germans' aim, one might have some strategic respect for their actions, but in fact Hitler hoped for victory almost to the last minute, and his generals were too weak or too cowardly to take independent action in genuine defense of the German people.
Ungváry is also right when he states in his conclusion that, from a Hungarian point of view, the sacrifice of the Hungarians "was the most senseless of the three." Yet, as it turns out, he is not talking here only about the hopeless and self-destructive struggle of the Hungarian soldiers on the German side. Instead he rehearses his thesis regarding the two evil aggressors: "The Hungarian soldiers--whichever side they joined--could only play the part of extras in the destruction of their country." I do not see it the same way. Even though there can be no doubt regarding the destructive behavior of many Red Army soldiers--and who in his right mind would dispute the horrors of the Stalinist regime?--it was still the sacrifice of the Red Army soldiers that put an end to the war and allowed for the reconstruction of Hungary. Having stopped the Germans and their allies at Stalingrad, how could anyone expect the Red Army not to pursue the torturers of Russia all the way to Vienna and Berlin? The Hungarian attack on the Soviet Union, on June 26, 1941, led inevitably to the arrival of the Red Army soldiers in Hungary in the fall of 1944.
Besides, in some ways the Soviet regime mellowed over the decades, and so did communism in Hungary. No parts of the population were systematically exterminated under communist rule, which is what the Nazis were doing in 1944 to the Hungarian Jews and what they might well have done to other Hungarians following the final victory of the "German race." We must pay tribute to the millions of Red Army soldiers who died in the struggle against what was genuinely a "fascist beast."
One can well understand the idealism of the Hungarian volunteers on the German side in Buda, but admiration is due not to them but to the Buda Volunteer Regiment that helped to take Castle Hill from the Germans. Admiration is due also to the small and dedicated group of resisters whose contribution was worth all the sacrifice, even if it shortened the war in Hungary by only a few minutes. I may never again have the opportunity to say this in a major American journal, so let me record here the name of Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky. He does not enjoy the fame that he deserves, in part because his name is so unpronounceable outside Hungary; but as a member of parliament he protested against Hungary's participation in the war, and also against its anti-Semitic measures. He, alone in the entire country, received the invading Germans on March 19, 1944 with a pistol in hand, and was wounded in the encounter. Later he headed the national resistance movement, for which the Hungarian Nazis tortured and hanged him on Christmas Eve 1944. And let me also mention Béla Stollár, who happened to be my sister's fiancé, and who was killed in a gun battle with the Hungarian Nazis in Budapest on the same Christmas Eve. He was recognized posthumously by Yad Vashem, together with hundreds of other Hungarians, as a righteous Gentile. No, these resisters and saviors of Jews did not simply play "the part of extras in the destruction of their country."
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