VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

The following is the first half of journalist Gábor Tóth’s interview with Sándor Szakály, posted on Vasá on January 8th, 2021.

With the end of World War I, what could the Hungarian military have done to help the country secure better conditions at the peace negotiations?

Unfortunately, with respect to autumn 1918, we cannot really talk about a Hungarian military. Earlier, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had had a joint army, but an independent Hungarian military did not exist at the time. We must also not forget that soldiers with a minority background made up a high percentage of both the Royal Hungarian Army and the kaiserlich und königlich Armee (i.e., the joint army).

Excluding Croatia, the population of Hungary was only 54 percent Hungarian at the time, and the composition of the military reflected the diversity of the country. One could find Serbs, Romanians, Slovaks, Ruthenians etc. serving alongside the Hungarian soldiers in the Royal Hungarian Army. In the event of an armed conflict, for example, between the 4th Nagyvárad Infantry Regiment and Romanian soldiers fighting to conquer Transylvania, would the Romanian soldiers of the 4th have fought against an enemy who considered them their brothers?

Or to look at another example, would the Slovak grunts in the Pozsony and Nyitra Infantry Regiments really have defended the Hungarian borders from their Slavic brothers?  

Would Hungarian soldiers have continued to fight in autumn 1918?

What role the soldiers returning from the front (some in a disciplined fashion with their closed units, many others haphazardly pouring back into the country) could have played in defense of the homeland is a good question. Although Hungary was an agriculturally oriented society in which it would have been attractive to allot land to soldiers who chose to continue their service, landowners were not inclined to make such an offer. In the absence of such motivation, the soldiers (those who had the option, at any rate) made the decision to go home.

Mihály Károlyi and his people wanted to set up a volunteer army. Did this eventually lead to a dearth of soldiers at the very moment when they were most needed?

Yes, in part. After three or four years of fighting on the front, there was no offer from the state that would have realistically incentivized the people to volunteer as soldiers. Let’s be honest, a soldier whose native turf was not at risk of being taken might have a hard time understanding why he had to fight in Kolozsvár or Szabadka to defend Hungarian territory...      

So the government led by Mihály Károlyi bore the brunt of the blame for the inadequate Hungarian military response?

Károlyi, his political mates and the military leaders they “managed to round up” (among whom was not a single general!) were, in my opinion, naive. Other historians have described them as simply amateurish. They believed the promise made by the Entente that the negotiated peace would be “fair”... They did not take into account, however, that by October 1918, even Woodrow Wilson, the American president, had let go of his earlier principles, so Hungary approached the peace negotiations from a position of great weakness.

So their managerial incompetence was the reason why the military leadership let go of the hands of their subordinates?

Károlyi and his people began building up the new military by quickly razing the old one. By January 1919, they had dissolved the general staff, artillery staff and the corps of military engineers. They also forced nearly every general and colonel into retirement!

They themselves decapitated Hungarian military leadership at the most critical moment. Had Károlyi left the generals in place, they could have potentially built a military force capable of an adequate response to the looming threats.

With a more potent Hungarian military, losses could have been minimized?

Having lost the war, there was no way of winning the peace, so to speak, but I do believe that with a more powerful military force, Hungary could have achieved some successes and results, especially in the regions where Hungarians made up most of the population. For example, the decision makers of the West would not have argued forcefully against the ethnically Hungarian territories of Csallóköz (translator’s note: The southwestern part of Slovakia today) remaining in Hungary if Hungarian forces had been stationed there. The Délvidék (translator’s note: The northern part of Serbia today) was another such example.

By spring 1919, by the time Károlyi and his people realized their policy was flawed, it was too late; the dismemberment of Hungary seemed unavoidable.

Source of Image: Vasá