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On this Day: March 19, 1944, Nazi Germany Invades Hungary

Hungarian Review, Volume V, No. 2: Frank Koszorus - "Reflections on March 19, 1944 and Its Aftermath: A Perfect Storm of Tragedy and Folly"Volume V, No. 2: Frank Koszorus
"Reflections on March 19, 1944 and Its Aftermath:
A Perfect Storm of Tragedy and Folly"

The American Hungarian Federation's statement regarding the occupation of Hungary by Hitler on March 19, 1944 and its horrific consequences: "We are concerned that a political agenda has replaced a debate based on historical facts relating to the Hungarian Holocaust and Nazi Germany's invasion and occupation of Hungary," said Frank Koszorus, Jr., the Federation's president.  "We condemn not only whitewashing but the blackening of this historical record as well.  Both forms of revisionism do a great disservice to the memory of the victims of evil and those who opposed it at a treacherous time in Hungary's history.  These considerations prompted us to issue our statement," he added.

The Statement appears in full below. Hungarian Review is available for purchase [directly from the publisher] or on AHF's Amazon Store Help AHF by purchasing products using the AHF Amazon Store!

Reflections on March 19, 1944 and Its Aftermath:
A Perfect Storm of Tragedy and Folly
Frank Koszorus, Jr.

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness and integrity. The Federation applauds Hungary for sponsoring Holocaust memorial events during the 2014 memorial year just as it was glad to see Hungary mark the Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Year in 2012 – events that contribute to a better understanding of Hungary during a treacherous time. Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care also should be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.
Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:

First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of March 19, 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.

Second, in order to fully understand the extent of the drastic changes brought about by the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, one must recall, as noted by Joseph Rothschild, that prior to that date and “to the chagrin and rage of the Radical Rightists, domestic social and institutional coordination with the Nazi model was also diluted by the ruling conservatives.

Parliamentary debate was vigorous, opposition parties were active, trade unions remained free, the press was lively – though overt criticism of Germany was taboo. Civil liberties endured. Escaping Poles and Allied war prisoners received shelter, and the Jews though economically and socially molested, were shielded from extermination. Finally, the exasperated Hitler occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944 and forced the replacement of the foot-dragging and peace-seeking conservative government with a more pro-German one though, still not within all-out Radical Right one.”1

The great majority of knowledgeable commentators and historians agree2 with Professor Rothschild that Nazi Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. That occupation was not a friendly gesture by an ally just strolling through Hungary, but ordered by an angry and anxious Hitler who intended to keep Hungary from extricating itself from the war, as Budapest had been attempting to do as it negotiated with Allied representatives.

Hitler also was outraged by the Kallay government’s adamant refusal to deport Hungary’s 800,000 Jews. As succinctly noted by historian Randolph Braham, a specialist of that period, “[it] was primarily to safeguard their security interests that the Germans decided to invade Hungary. The destruction of Hungarian Jewry, the last surviving large bloc of European Jewry, was to a large extent concomitant of this German military decision.”3 John Lukacs wrote, “[w]hat remained of the independence of Hungary [following the invasion] was largely gone. . . .[and] so war had come to Budapest, physically, in the spring of 1944.”4 Tragically, the lack of adequate preparations by the government coupled with the pro-German predisposition of several officers of the General Staff and senior officers in key positions and a fear of bolshevism were among the factors that precluded any military opposition to the German invasion to defend Hungary’s borders.

The roles of Germans and Hungarians in the Holocaust are summarized by Braham as follows, “[w]hile the Germans were eager to solve the Jewish question, they could not have proceeded without the consent of the newly established [Sztojay] puppet government and the cooperation of the Hungarian instrumentalities of power. . . . The Hungarian ultra-rightists, in turn, . . could not have achieved their ideologically defined objectives in the absence of the [German] occupation [in March 1944].”5 Gyorgy Ranki put it this way, “[n]evertheless, with all due regard to the major Hungarian component, upon examining the events, one must conclude that without the Germans, the Hungarian Holocaust would not have occurred in the same manner.”6

And in examining the events, it is important to recall the anti-Jewish laws, Kamenets-Podolsk, (halted by Interior Minister Keresztes-Fischer), the Novi Sad massacres (perpetrators prosecuted by the Kallay government) and the labor battalions (whose plight Defense Minister Vilmos Nagy-Baczoni eased and for which he was recognized as a Righteous Gentile). It is equally important to examine why approximately 800,000 Jews remained alive in Hungary in 1944 before the occupation. While fascists, Nazis and pro-German elements may have welcomed the German invasion, thereby betraying Hungary, Hungarian interests and humanity, one must consider how and why they had been stymied as long as Hungary had been able to maintain a semblance of its independence and until Hitler’s invasion. After the war, the war criminals, including members of the Stojay and Szalasi governments, were tried, convicted and executed by the People’s Tribunals in Hungary.

Third, the Nazi German occupation had horrendous consequences, resulting in the deportation under horrific conditions and death of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Nazi occupiers and their Hungarian collaborators. Both the German and the Hungarian roles must be acknowledged (as Hungary’s ambassador to the United Nations Csaba Korosi did recently), remembered and taught objectively not only for the sake of accuracy, but also to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Fourth, the Holocaust and the war-related suffering are separate catastrophes. But one cannot deny or belittle the devastating consequences for Hungary of the German occupation and the acts of the Quislings, such as keeping that country in the war and subjecting it to the "most destructive fighting ever to take place on Hungarian soil."7

Fifth, the Federation further believes that rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorus who intervened with his loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimized.8 Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as examples for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of the barbarism that characterized the Nazis and their collaborators (as well as the Communists).

In sum, March 19, 1944 and its consequences are interconnected historical facts relating to one of the most tragic periods of Hungarian history. It can be hoped that politics is not injected into what should be a serious and honest historical debate and a somber, respectful and distinguished commemoration of tragedies that affected and continue to affect so many lives.

Notes
1. Joseph Rothschild, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II (2000), p. 40.

2. Elie Wiesel; Istvan Nemeskurty; Ivan. T. Berend; Balint Torok; Gyula Juhasz; Peter Gosztonyi; Janos Horvath; Istvan Csicsery-Ronay; Imre Kovacs; Istvan Domonkos; Elek Karsai; Karoly Vigh; Tsvi Erez; Zsuzsa Hanto; and Asher Cohen to name just a few.  Ignac Romsics observed that, “[a]lthough Horthy formally appointed the government [under duress]. . . the cabinet usually did not clear its actions with him but with Edmund Veesenmayer, whom Hitler had sent as Reich Plenipotentiary to replace the German ambassador in Budapest.  During his five months in office, Sztojay set about doing all the things that the Germans and the Hungarian right wing had been demanding but which had so far been more or less successfully blocked by the conservative regime.  On March 28th he dissolved all parties of the left-wing and bourgeois democratic opposition, including the Independent Smallholders and Social Democrats.  During March and April over 3,000 people were taken into custody by the Gestapo and the Hungarian police and gendarmerie. . . . In order to preserve a semblance of legal continuity, the Diet was allowed to carry on functioning but there was a massive clear-out of officials in key positions of the state administration and army command, including 29 of the 41 high sheriffs and two-thirds of the country’s burgomasters.”  Ignac Romsics, Hungary in the Twentieth Century (1999), pp. 211-212, (Emphasis added).

The “clear-out” was successful.  The German’s goal of eradicating the Hungarian Jews “was facilitated by the fact that they had destroyed the traditional Hungarian political leadership; the anti-German groups of the Hungarian economic, diplomatic, and military elite had been removed from positions of influence.  The conservative-liberals, leftist liberals, and social democrats who had protested against the Jewish laws had either been taken into German prison or concentration camps or had gone into hiding.” Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II (2011), p. 292.   See also, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933 – 1945 (1975), p. 379: “The real rulers in Hungary thenceforth [after March 19, 1944] were the SS and Reich Plenipotentiary Edmund Veesenmayer.”

Under these circumstances Horthy perhaps should have resigned to avoid the semblance of  legitimacy as Kallay implored.  A Jewish delegation, headed by Ferenc Chorin and Moric Kornfeld, on the other hand, urged Horthy not to resign because, they believed, if he failed to appease the Germans  the Jews would face extermination.  Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II (2011), p. 281.  His “decision to remain as regent has been one of the most intensely debated questions among Hungarians ever since.”  Cornelius, p. 286 .  Since Horthy did not abdicate could he have done more than to protect just the 250,000 Jews of Budapest?  According to Charles Fenyvesi “, . . .Horthy as head of state did have enough power to protect its Jewish citizens.  . . . Horthy underestimated his freedom of action and overestimated the force of the great power facing him.”  Charles Fenyvesi, When Angels Fooled the World:  Rescuers of Jews in Wartime Hungary  (2003), p. 12.  Cf.  Veesenmayer’s cable to Berlin on July 13, 1944: “He [Horthy] has no personal influence left whatsoever, which is apparent from his inability to even have Undersecretaries of the Ministry of the Interior Baky and Endre removed." Gyorgy Ranki, Ervin Pamlenyi, Lorant Tilkovszky and Gyula Juhasz, A Whilhelmstrasse es Magyarorszag:  Nemet Diplomacia Iratok Magyarorszagrol, 1933 – 1945 (1968), p. 881.

3. Randolph L. Braham, The Uniqueness of the Holocaust in Hungary, The Holocaust in Hungary Forty Years Later, Braham and Vago (Eds.) (1985), p. 185.   

4. John Lukacs, Budapest 1900:  A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (1988), p. 217.

5. Randolph L. Braham, The Uniqueness of the Holocaust in Hungary, The Holocaust in Hungary Forty Years Later, Braham and Vago (Eds.) (1985), p. 186.   

6. Gyorgy Ranki, The Germans and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry, Ibid, p. 77.

7. N.F. Dreisiger, Hungary in 1945, in Hungarian Studies Review XXII, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 5. Bryan Cartledge summarized the enormous price Hungary paid for its ill-fated participation in the war:  “The war had cost Hungary 900,000 lives, of which 550,000 were Jewish. Six hundred thousand Hungarians, including 120,000 civilians, disappeared into captivity in the Soviet Union; half of them never returned. Nearly half the country’s national wealth had been destroyed or requisitioned, including 54 per cent of her industrial plant, 40 per cent of her railways and over half her livestock. All the prizes that had lured her into the Faustian pact with Hitler’s Germany were lost. Worse, Hungary had forfeited the goodwill of the international community.  At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, no voice was raised to mitigate her punishment, no concern expressed for her future. Churchill’s informal understanding with Stalin that the West would retain a 50 per cent share of influence in Hungary (subsequently reduced to 25 per cent by Molotov with Eden’s tacit agreement) was forgotten. The fait accompli of Soviet occupation was unchallenged. The year 1944 – 45 eclipsed the many previous tragedies and disasters in Hungary’s history, perhaps excepting only the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.”  Bryan Cartledge, The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary (2011), p. 412.  (Emphasis added.)

It should be recalled that “[w]ith the outbreak of World War II it was clear that Hungary would not be able to avoid being involved in the war. Despite efforts to maintain her neutrality, her geopolitical situation in Central Europe – surrounded by countries either allied with or occupied by Germany – predetermined her participation. The question was whether this participation would take shape as a German ally or an occupied country.… The lure of  regaining Hungary’s lost territories [inhabited by Hungarians] combined with Germany’s stunning early successes persuaded many that the restoration of the territories might be won through a German alliance. This belief was strengthened by the fact that Hungarian life maintained a surprising amount of normalcy, even though limited for its Jewish citizens, until the German occupation in March 1944.”  Cornelius, p. 5.   ”See also, John Flournoy Montgomery (U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Hungary, 1933 – 1941), Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947).

8. On the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself and a liberal Democrat who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognized Colonel Ferenc Koszorus:  "Colonel Koszorus’ unparalleled action  [in July 1944] was the only case in which Axis power used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by 3 1/2 months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission."… Therefore it is with great honor and pride that I rise today in recognition [of the] valiant, patriotic efforts of Ferenc Koszorus. Many thousands of families are alive today as a result of the heroic actions of one man who stood up for his beliefs in a very uncertain and dangerous time. His loyalty to his country and love of humanity are an inspiration to all who struggle against oppression and the vile bigotry of racism… Too often the efforts of those who struggle against the Nazi oppression go unrecognized. This year, the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, the world reflects on the lessons learned. I am proud to honor Colonel Koszorus, a patriot, a humanitarian, and a hero." Hon. Tom Lantos, Ferenc Koszorus:A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust,  Congressional Record, May 26, 1994.

See also The American Jewish Yearbook, Vol., 46, (Ed. Harry Schneiderman), p. 256:  “The main current of public opinion failed to take the side of Nazism against the Jews. It proved overwhelmingly anti-Nazi and largely decent toward the Jews.” Other Hungarian heroes include but are not limited to the following: General Vilmos Nagybaczoni-Nagy (who upon being appointed minister of defense by the Kallay government took measures to end the gross abuses threatening the lives of Jews in the auxiliary labor force); Tibor Baranszky (who as secretary to Monsignor Angelo Rotta, the Vatican’s ambassador to Budapest, distributed protective letters to Jews on forced marches and elsewhere); Roman Catholic Priest Ferenc Kallo (who gave Jews certificates of baptism and who was killed by the Arrow Cross on October 29, 1944); Jozsef Antall Sr. (who as a member of the ministry of internal affairs for civilian refugees gave refuge to Jews and Poles); Prince-Primate JusztinianSeredi, Bishop Laszlo Ravasz of the Reformed Church and Istvan Bethlen (who communicated protests to Regent Horthy in 1944 against deportations).

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Congressional Record

Seen here at the AHF 2005 Congressional Reception, where he was a recipient of AHF's highest award, the Col. Commandant Michael Kovats Medal of Freedom.FERENC KOSZORUS: A HERO OF THE HUNGARIAN HOLOCAUST
HON. TOM LANTOS
(Extension of Remarks - May 26, 1994)
[Page: E1109]

HON. TOM LANTOS
in the House of Representatives
THURSDAY, MAY 26, 1994

(Tom Lantos, who died in February 2008 of esophageal cancer, was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. He was also recipient of AHF's highest honor, the Col. Commandant Michael Kovats Medal of Freedom [read more])

  • Mr. LANTOS. Mr. Speaker, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian holocaust. I rise today to recognize one of the great heros of the Hungarian holocaust. Ferenc Koszorus, who at great personal sacrifice to his own life, saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps.
  • During the turbulent time in the summer of 1944, advancing Allied forces were closing in on Berlin while Hitler was racing to implement the final solution, the destruction of the Jewish race. There were many acts of heroic compassion and humanitarianism during this period. I would like to recount the story of Col. Ferenc Koszorus, one of the most remarkable examples of bravery and courage of the time.
  • By June 1944, the Nazis had incarcerated and liquidated most of the Jewish population of Europe. In the capital of Hungary, Budapest, there remained approximately 250,000 Jews still alive. Budapest was still under control of the Hungarian police force. The Nazis believed that this force was not ruthless and brutal enough to deal adequately with the complete destruction of the large remaining Jewish population of Budapest.
  • Ferenc Koszorus was a colonel in the Hungarian Army in charge of the First Magyar Armored Division stationed in and around Budapest. He learned that Laszlo Baky, Secretary of State and director of all security forces, with the exception of the army, had planned a coup d'etat to install a police force completely subservient to the Nazis. They would see to it that Hungary was purged of all remaining Jews.
  • With the help of the Gestapo, Baky formed several battalions of `gendarmerie' forces loyal to him. Orders from the Regent to disband the gendarmerie went unheeded. Colonel Koszorus controlled the last remaining active army unit in Hungary. At a time when few others would stand up to the Nazi occupation, Colonel Koszorus took the initiative to resist.
  • Realizing the severity of the situation, Colonel Koszorus consulted with the Regent and began preparations on his own to stop Baky and the gendarmerie battalions. On July 5, 1944 at 11:30 p.m., Colonel Koszorus ordered the units of the 1st Armored Division to take up positions at strategic points in Budapest, sealing off all road leading into the city. By 7:00 a.m. on July 6, 1944 all the units were in place and Colonel Koszorus informed Baky that if his gendarmerie did not leave and disband they would be destroyed. On July 7, 1944 Baky capitulated and evacuated his forces.
  • Colonel Koszorus' unparalleled action was the only case known in which an Axis power used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by 3 1/2 months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1994, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission
  • In October 1944, after the Germans had taken Budapest, Colonel Koszorus was forced into hiding to avoid certain execution by the Gestapo. While alive, Colonel Koszorus never received recognition of his actions. In 1991, Ferenc Koszorus was posthumously promoted to the rank of general by the Hungarian Government. His memory is honored with a plaque placed in the famous Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.
  • Therefore it is with great honor and pride that I rise today in recognition valiant, patriotic efforts of Ferenc Koszorus. Many thousands of families are alive today as a result of the heroic actions of one man who stood up for his beliefs in a very uncertain and dangerous time. His loyalty to his country and love of humanity are an inspiration to all who struggle against oppression and the vile bigotry of racism.
  • Too often the efforts of those who struggle against the Nazi oppression go unrecognized. This year, the 50th anniversary of Hungarian holocaust, the world reflects on the lessons learned. I am proud to honor Colonel Koszorus, a patriot, a humanitarian, and a hero.

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