Hungarian Arrow Cross militia and a German Tiger II tank in Budapest, October 1944.
Hungary fought in World War I as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lost the war and became extinct in late October 1918. In the wake of that defeat, Hungarian Communist leader Béla Kun briefly set up a “soviet” republic in 1919. This was quickly overthrown in favor of an independent kingdom, which served as a front for the personal dictatorship of the Regent Miklós Horthy from 1920 to 1944. Hungary was subject to strictures of the Treaty of Trianon imposed on it by the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. As in Germany, there was much bitterness over terms, especially territory lost to several surrounding Balkan states. In the 1920s Hungary came under Italian fascist influence, but the lure of old ties to Germany was much stronger. Some Hungarians shared extreme Nazi views about Jews, while a significant percentage of the officer corps was ethnically volksdeutsch . Hungary thus drifted into the Nazi orbit, confirming that it wanted a place in Adolf Hitler’s New Order in Europe but balking at the prospect of war. That hesitation contributed to Hitler’s back down at the Munich Conference in September 1938. Budapest also refused to participate in FALL WEISS (1939) and allowed many Poles to escape across its territory. However, Hungary collaborated in dismemberment of Czechoslovakia under terms of the Vienna Awards, receiving part of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia on November 2, 1939. The second Vienna Award was made on August 30, 1940, when Hitler compelled Rumania to cede northern Transylvania to Hungary. By then Hungary had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact. Still, it was the territorial acquisitions that firmly committed Budapest to Berlin, as a final German victory was thereafter the only outcome that would assure that Hungary kept its new territories. Horthy therefore brought nine million Hungarians formally into the Axis alliance on November 20, 1940.
German forces took up attack positions in Hungary in April 1941, preparatory to launching BARBAROSSA. Before that attack began, Hungary gained the Banat region from the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia. The Hungarians sent only a token force into the Soviet Union in 1941 (the “Mobile Corps” or “Rapid Corps”) after declaring war on June 27. At the end of the year, however, the Wehrmacht was in crisis in the snow in front of Moscow. Horthy bent to the behest of a German Führer desperate for more men. The Hungarians had only about 220,000 regular troops and most were poorly equipped and trained. The Army had fewer than 200 wholly outmoded tanks, and the Air Force almost no modern aircraft. Horthy nevertheless agreed to raise and send Hungarian 2nd Army to the Eastern Front. It comprised 250,000 men, partly armed by Germany but lacking organic transport or sufficient modern weapons. It fought mainly in Ukraine during Operation BLAU in the summer of 1942. The commitment in the east left Hungary feeling vulnerable to attack by Rumania, an Axis ally but traditional enemy. Hungary therefore created a home guard of over 200,000 men. By May 1943, most of those would be needed in the east as well because the Hungarian Army was destroyed in heavy fighting around Stalingrad over the winter of 1942–1943, where the nation lost perhaps 150,000 men. After that catastrophe Budapest kept back its Army as best it could, under German pressure to replace Wehrmacht losses with Hungarian troops. Berlin noticed and began to plan a change of government in Hungary.
Hitler and the OKH were determined to hold Hungary within the Axis. Hitler was personally fixated on the oil fields at Nagykanizsa, and he was in any case committed to a Haltebefehl strategy in the east in 1944. Operation MARGARETHE thus brought German forces into Hungary on March 19, while the Red Army was still advancing through Ukraine. The main results of this operation were to bring Hungary’s 400,000 Jews within reach of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and to ensure that Hungary would become a battleground that fall and over the next winter. Adolf Eichmann personally led a new Einsatzgruppen that entered the country and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz . As the Red Army approached Budapest, Eichmann hoarded transport and men to ship Hungarian Jews to the great death camp in Poland. When that ceased to be possible, he took tens of thousands on death marches into western Hungary. Meanwhile, another Hungarian Army was destroyed during Operation BAGRATION in June–August, 1944. As the center of the Eastern Front collapsed and the Red Army moved into Rumania and Bulgaria that summer and fall, Hungary sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a separate peace with Moscow. In the “Debrecen offensive operation,” Soviet forces penetrated to the Pustyna plain starting on October 6, 1944. The Red Army penetrated nearly 80 miles in two weeks, against strong opposition. On the 11th a secret ceasefire was agreed. Horthy announced publicly on the 15th that he was seeking a permanent armistice with Moscow. That provoked a coup by the domestic fascist organization Arrow Cross, which was supported by German Special Forces. The internal conflict briefly threatened to split apart the 25-division strong Hungarian Army. One commander went over to the Soviet side, but his officers did not follow. Most Hungarian troops continued to fight alongside the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS against the Red Army. In part, loyalty to the Axis was sustained by the fact that an ancient enemy, the Rumanian Army, had already switched sides and sent troops into Hungary in the company of the Soviets.
A hard and bitter winter of fighting resulted, lasting into late March 1945. The Soviets struck out for Budapest on October 28, 1944, but were blocked. Two more tries in December were also stymied, for Hitler unaccountably strongly reinforced the Hungarian Army and Army Group South with 2nd Panzer Army, and with the third (and weakest) incarnation of German 6th Army. He even ordered a counterattack in force in January 1945, reinforced with more Panzer divisions moved in from Belgium after his Ardennes offensive failed. Joseph Stalin and the Stavka more sensibly regarded Hungary as a theater useful to draw German reserves away from their main line of advance to Berlin. Budapest was encircled by Christmas, but Hitler issued a Haltebefehl order that the city must be held.
Because the Hungarian capital bestrode the main avenues of advance into Austria and Bohemia, the Red Army could not circumvent it as it had done in other deep battle operations around Smolensk, Minsk, Warsaw, and other major cities. An advance bombardment by massed artillery and bombers announced the start of a siege. A dramatic relief effort by 4th Panzer Corps—Operation KONRAD —began on January 1, 1945. But KONRAD’s 4th Panzer Corps failed to break in, while the garrison failed to break out. Pest fell in the middle of January. Buda was taken on February 13, after seven weeks of siege. Meanwhile, the Vistula-Oder operation benefited by the loss of German combat power to the Hungarian theater, as Soviet tank columns hurtled across Poland at astonishing speed.
Official Russian histories claim 49,000 enemy dead in the siege of Budapest, and 110,000 prisoners. Hitler then ordered the last Wehrmacht offensive of the war: FRÜHLINGSERWACHEN (“Spring Awakening”) from March 6–15, 1945. It failed, but raised total Soviet losses in five months of fighting in Hungary to 100,000 dead. Moscow oversaw installation of a coalition provisional government in Budapest that summer. During 1946–1947, coalition partners of the Communist Party were forced out in rigged elections. Hungary was firmly within the “Soviet bloc” by the end of 1948, and underwent a thorough Stalinization.