In 1941, Hitler’s strategic dilemma of invading and destroying the Soviet Union, a much larger country, led him to seek warriors from fascistic dictators across Europe. Spain, Italy, Romania and Hungary answered his call and sent forces.
Hungary was created in 1919 when the Versailles Treaty broke up the Austro-Hugarian Empire. Admiral Miklós Horthy was appointed Regent, and he had the power to dissolve the government. The Great Depression hit the new state very hard, and Fascist parties gained power and made close alliances with Germany. by 1936, the Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gombos promised German Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler that he would have a model Nazi state within two years, but he died before he could make it happen. Hitler and the Nazis made sure that Hungary increasingly depended on Germany for an export market, bringing Hungary into their sphere of influence. Horthy was a frequent, if vexing, guest of Hitler and Nazi officials.
Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party — The Hungarian Nazis — increasingly agitated for anti-Jewish laws, and the government responded with two initiatives that limited Jews in business and government positions. Continued unrest persuaded Horthy to oust the Prime Minister, and Pál Teleki formed a government. He signed a pact with Yugoslavia that was violated when Hitler ordered the invasion of the Balkans in 1941. Teleki commited suicide on April 28, 1941 in protest of the invasion.
Horthy was forced to appoint right-wing Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy. Bardossy was a Hitlerphile and convinced (or tricked) Horthy into supporting Operation Barbarossa. The Hungarian Second Army joined the invasion, and was in operation until it was nearly destroyed in the fighting to relieve Stalingrad. The mounting casualties had allowed Horthy to sack Bardossy in March 1942.
Bardossy’s successor Miklos Kallay had a dance with the devil — if he openly broke with Hitler, Germany would invade to secure Hungary and her resources. If he did not, the Russians would eventually sack Budapest. He played a dangerous game, appearing loyal to the Nazis while pro-Western Hungarian diplomats tried to secure guarantees that Allied planes would transit Hungary unmolested.
Kallay was able to bring the remaining Hungarian soldiers home in April 1943, which forced a confrontation with Hitler and the occupation of Hungary. A pro-Nazi government was installed. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps in 1944, the last mass liquidation in the Holocaust. Only a third of Hungary’s 750,000 Jews survived.
As the Red Army advanced in October 1944, German units destroyed roads and rail lines and cut communications. They abducted Horthy after he tried to negotiate a peace with the Red Army and forced him to abandon his plans. Horthy abdicated and intense fighting lasted for seven weeks outside Budapest. Destruction from both the Nazis and the Red Army left Hungary desolate. The last German troops were driven out on April 4, 1945.