VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

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

The Hungarian Soviet Republic and the formation of the Red Army came next?

Yes. Hungary’s military build-up began in earnest in spring 1919, in the wake of the communist takeover, when Czech and Romanian forces attacked the parts of the country not yet under occupation in an attempt to seize even more territory. The Hungarian Red Army was formed, “red” in name, not so much in character. Going through the names of its leaders, we see that between 80 to 90 percent of them would go on to play significant military roles during the Interwar Era.

A few months later, the formation of the National Army also began, yes?

Yes. A political cadre began to organize against the Hungarian Soviet Republic, initially in Arad under Count Gyula Károlyi. Later, likewise under his leadership, a counter-revolutionary government was formed in Szeged, which won the support of Miklós Horthy, Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Fleet. In his role as the Minister of War in the new government, Horthy called for the formation of the Hungarian National Army, the dual goals of which were to erect a new Hungary and to neutralize the Bolsheviks.

What kind of gear / firepower did the National Army have at its disposal?

Not much. Whenever we think of the word “army”, we conjure up an image of a huge contingent of fighting men, but in July 1919, only a total of 3,000 to 4000 men were enlisted in the National Army. I have come across some documents from the time that requested the enlistees to bring, if circumstances allowed, their own firearms and uniforms!

Let’s give a thought to the conditions they faced. The men of the National Army finally received gear when the French, who were occupying Szeged at the time, were willing to provide it to them.

This small-in-number National Army then marched to Transdanubia, which was not occupied by the Romanians, and “absorbed” what was left of the Red Army, which had been made up of tens of thousands of men only a few months earlier.          

So what you are saying is that the National Army was made up of both “Reds” and “Whites”?

That is correct. The soldiers of the Red Army and “White” officers from Szeged both served in the National Army. Moreover, even the Prónay Detachment saw Jewish reserve officers in its ranks. If we take a look at the data, we see that about 90 percent of the officer corps of the National Army had served in the Red Army beforehand.

They fell in with the Bolsheviks not on an ideological basis but rather because they believed that defending their homeland was important.

Having looked at the backgrounds of the men making up the top levels of military leadership, I can tell you that about half of them were from the territories that would be lost via Trianon! They really were fighting to save their homeland.    

There were also severe atrocities carried out by the National Army...

No one would deny that some units in the National Army overstepped the laws of the time and tortured and sometimes even murdered people. There was no excuse, but it was a type of blowback in response to the cruelty carried out by Red Terror groups over the 133 days that the communist dictatorship had stood. Over the course of my research, I have never come across any documents from the period in which Miklós Horthy – as Commander of the National Army – gave a command or an order to deal with the communists in a violent manner. Order and discipline were Horthy’s main concerns because the objective was to restore the rule of law in Hungary, after which those who had committed crimes would be held accountable by the law.

Certain opinions from Hungary’s communist past would have us believe that Horthy used the National Army to strengthen his hold on power. Are these really true?

In my opinion, they are not correct. The National Army played no role in the vote for regent, but it did legitimize Horthy in the eyes of the Entente Powers – particularly the British – as the right person to take the office of head of state. A significant part of Hungarian society also backed Horthy as the temporary head of state while the situation remained uncertain.   

Let’s get back to the National Army. What would this modest fighting force have been capable of in defense of Hungary?

Hungarian political leadership hoped that in the event of an attack against Hungary, the National Army would be capable of holding the invaders up for one to two days.

That is not much time, but perhaps enough for the League of Nations to intervene and stop the attack. This hypothetical attack never came, and when Hungary joined the organization in 1922, the danger of this kind of threat diminished.

In January 1922, the National Army was henceforth known as the Royal Hungarian Army. On March 31st, 1927, the Inter-Allied Military Control Committee wrapped up its work in Hungary, after which, if modestly, Hungary could begin a military build-up. During István Bethlen’s tenure as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Hungary, resources were not chiefly allocated to the military, but rather to improving education, the economy and raising the standard of living of Hungary’s various social groups.

Thus, there was no possibility to expand the Royal Hungarian Army, which numbered 105–110 thousand men, during the 1920’s. The expansion, however, finally occurred toward the end of the 1930’s.

For many, serving in the Royal Hungarian Army proved attractive. They viewed it as the means by which to achieve the hoped-for future territorial revision, even though throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, it would have been capable of defending the country only for a few days against a coordinated attack by the Little Entente.