Hungarian extremists: the Arrow Cross Movement


1. Arrow Cross before the German Occupation

 

The most relevant Hungarian right-wing extremist political force was the Arrow Cross Party –Hungarist Movement. It was led by a former general staff officer, Ferenc Szálasi, who successfully integrated squabbling pro-Nazi movements and developed ‘Hungarism’, a muddled xenophobe ideology with widespread appeal.

 

It was a Hungarian blend of Christolatry, nationalism and socialism which, in Szálasi’s understanding, carried global significance. According to this, along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in the future Europe would be ruled by “Hungarist” Hungary. Szálasi held strong anti-Jewish views, considered himself a staunch ”asemite” and dreamed of a Hungary free of its large Jewish population. Charging the government with neglecting social reforms and an ‘indulgent’ attitude toward the Jews, he strongly opposed Horthy’s political elite, although he remained the Regent’s devoted supporter until 1944. Szálasi’s political influence grew at such pace that in April 1937 his party was banned and he was jailed for a few months. Following his release, he continued to organise his movement; he was charged again and this time received a three-year prison sentence. This move however, similar to Hitler’s imprisonment and the persecution of Nazi sympathisers in the 1920s in Weimar Germany, had the opposite affect intended by the authorities: becoming a martyr in the eyes of many, in the 1939 elections Szálasi’s Nyilaskeresztes Párt (Arrow Cross Party) received over 750 thousand votes (11.15%) and sent 29 representatives to Parliament. At the time of his release in 1940, Szálasi took over the helm of the opposition’s largest far-right party.

 

2. The German Occupation

 

The first days following the German occupation on 19 March, 1944 were dominated by efforts to form a government acceptable to the Germans. Edmund Veesenmayer, the newly appointed German ambassador and plenipotentiary recommended Béla Imrédy, a loyal supporter of the Nazis, to the post of Prime Minister. The Germans had no intention to include in the government the Arrow Cross Party led by Szálasi, whom they considered unstable and unfit for the job. However, Horthy refused to reappoint Imrédy, forced to resign in 1939. Hustling for positions, the lobby of the German embassy swarmed with far-right politicians and public figures dissatisfied with the performance of the ‘anglophile’ Kállay. Finally, after some blackmailing and arm-twisting by Veesenmayer, an agreement was hammered out.  Horthy appointedDöme SztójayHungary’s ambassador to Berlin to form a new government. The military officer, with no experience in domestic politics, already ill at the time and returning to the country after years spent in foreign service, had little knowledge of local conditions. The Regent believed that in the long run this could actually give him more room to manoeuvre, while the fiercely pro-German, professed anti-Semite was also acceptable to the Germans.

 

A coalition government was set up on March 22, 1944, which included the Hungarian Renewal Party led by Imrédy and the National Socialist Party, a splinter formation of Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party. The inauguration of the collaborationist Sztójay government followed constitutional requirements to the letter: the previous cabinet resigned and Horthy approved the new government. However, everyone was aware of the fact that the ‘legitimate’ government and the Regent were ‘propped up’ by an occupation army with guns at the ready. Studying the composition of the cabinet, no one had the least doubt concerning the ideological orientation of its members: in the spring of 1944 far-right fanatics, pro-Nazi collaborators and political opportunists entered into alliance with extremists within the ruling party.

Along with Sztójay, who filled the post of Foreign Minister as well, the ruling party (the Party of Hungarian Life) was represented by four ministers, including Lajos Reményi-Schneller, for years a trusted friend of Germany and Béla Jurcsek, Minister of Public Provisioning. Imrédy’s party gave the Interior Minister Andor Jaross, Deputy Prime Minister Jenő Rátz and Minister of Trade and Industry Antal Kunder, while the National Socialist’s retired gendarmerie-major, party leader and MP László Baky was offered the position of political state-secretary at the Ministry of Interior.

 

3. The Fall of Horthy

 

Following the July halt to the deportation of Jews, Regent Horthy and his circle were pressured by the Germans to permit the removal of Hungarian Jews remaining in the country. The collaborating government and the Nazis set a date for the evacuation of the Jews of Budapest. According to plans, the operation was to commence on August 25. However, a few days earlier a crucial change had occurred on the military front: in response to the successive Soviet advances into Rumania, on August 23 a new leadership seized power in BucharestRumaniajoined the Allied powers and declared war on its former ally, GermanyHungary suddenly gained strategic importance for the Nazi war machine: leaders of the Reich were concerned that their troops stationed in the Balkans may be cut off, leading to a highly unstable military situation. Planned deportations from Budapest were called off and Eichmann left the capital with his men.


Horthy took advantage of the German’s temporary vulnerability and dismissed the Sztójay government. The new cabinet was formed under the leadership of colonel-general Géza Lakatos. His most important responsibility was pulling the country out of the war. The next month and a half was characterised by half-hearted, cumbersome and bungling preparations by the government to ‘jump ship’. For quite some time, the Regent and his circle hoped to sign a cease-fire with Allied powers and ignored the reality of the advancing Red Army, pushing ever closer to and then crossing the country’s eastern borders. Horthy had hoped that Hungary could follow Finland’s example (once the Finnish government announced its withdrawal from the war, the Germans simply pulled out of the country) and Hungary would be occupied by the Western Allies. His strategy, however, had no foundation in reality whatsoever. The Soviet army was already within the Trianon borders of Hungary when the Regent decided to send a peace delegation to Moscow. As the leader of the delegation, lieutenant-general Gábor Faragho (one of the gendarmerie commanders responsible for the summer deportations) signed a preliminary cease-fire agreement on October 11.


Due to the poorly organised conspiracy and the large number of informants, the Germans had accurate information on key aspects of Hungary’s preparations for withdrawal. Since a successful attempt would have secured the Soviets with a spring-board to attack the southern territories of the Reich, Germany could not let Regent Horthy withdraw Hungary from the war. While putting little faith in Ferenc Szálasi’s administrative abilities, the Nazis turned to him and his Arrow Cross Party as a last resort. Once Horthy was out of the way, Szálasi was assigned the task of keeping Hungary on the side of Germany to the last minute and solving Hungary’s ‘Jewish question’ once and for all.


4. The Arrow Cross Coup’ d État


Independently of each other, the Nazis and Horthy’s inner circle planned October 15th to be the decisive day. In the early hours of that day German commandos kidnapped Horthy’s son, Miklós Horthy junior, one of the key organisers of the withdrawal attempt. That morning, the heart-broken Regent announced to Veesenmayer Hungary’s intention of withdrawing from the war. Around one in the afternoon the radio broadcast Horthy’s proclamation informing the country that Hungary had asked for a cease-fire (while it had already signed a secret agreement). In these fateful hours it became evident how ineptly the whole affair was handled. Members of the conspiracy failed to act with unity, hesitant initiatives were soon abandoned, pro-Nazi and far-right sympathisers within the Hungarian officer corps quickly took control of key army units and made sure that the Regent’s orders never reached their intended destination. By nightfall, the Nazis were in full control. Next afternoon, after the Germans invaded Buda Castle, the Regent was blackmailed with his kidnapped son and the security of his family. Under such pressure Horthy abrogated the proclamation he made the previous day, resigned and appointed Ferenc Szálasi to form a new government.

 

The Regent ‘s October 15 proclamation, the hope of the end of the war and persecution filled the Jewish population of Budapest with euphoria. Many tore off the yellow stars and ran to the streets to celebrate. However, by the evening the radio broadcast Szálasi’s military orders. Within hours all hell broke loose on the streets of the capital. Arrow Cross militiamen drove labour servicemen onto Chain and Margaret Bridges and shot them into the Danube. In Népszínház Street and Teleki Square some servicemen got weapons and put up scattered resistance. With German help, the Arrow Cross quickly restored control and, in reprisal, killed numerous Jews captured in the area. Arrow Cross gangs, often composed of teenagers not older than 15-16, were allowed to go on a rampage. Atrocities started in the countryside as well. At the internment camp near Pusztavám an entire work battalion, made up primarily of intellectuals, was gunned down. The first few days of Arrow Cross rule were days of uncontrolled terror. After an interim period the leadership itself tried to reign in its chaotic forces; they realised that neither their own, nor German interests were served if the streets of Budapest were turned over to gangs of murderous, roaming gangs.

5. Szálasi’s Jewish Policy

At the time of the Arrow Cross take-over the only Jews outside Budapest were to be found in labour service battalions. In the capital a little over 200 thousand, and around 100 thousand Jews in work battalions under military command watched in fear what the Arrow Cross rule would bring.

As a professed ‘asemite’, Ferenc Szálasi wished to rule a ‘dejewified’ Hungary. However, his Jewish policy was guided by other considerations as well: a need for the international recognition of his government. After some time the Germans were shocked to realise that Szálasi was not nearly as co-operative on the Jewish question as the Sztójay cabinet had been in the spring and summer of 1944. Under an earlier agreement with the Germans, starting in the first half of November, the Arrow Cross government handed over some 50 thousand Budapest Jews and labour servicemen to be taken out of the country Szálasi ‘bargained’ harder over the number of ‘borrowed Jews’ as Sztójay ever did.

Both the Vatican and neutral countries condemned the events and in a series of stern communiqués called on Szálasi to halt further deportations. Hoping to have his Hungarist government recognised by the outside world, the ‘Nation Leader’ set great store on the opinion of neutral countries. This is why he permitted the widening of the diplomatic ‘protection system’, and the large-scale attempts by the Vatican’s representative in Hungary and diplomats of neutral countries to save lives.

On November 17, 1944, Szálasi presented his ’last solution’ to the Jewish question. He classified Jews still in Hungary into six categories: 1. Jews with documents of safe-conduct issued by foreign countries; 2. Jews lent to Germany for work; 3. Jews waiting to emigrate from Hungary – a) ‘borrowed Jews’ who have not yet been taken to Germany, b) the ill and the elderly not fit for the journey, c) children under the protection of the International Red Cross, d) converted Jews; 4. Exempted Jews;  5. Christian church leaders of Jewish descent; 6. Jewish foreign nationals.

According to Szálasi’s plans, Jews in category 1, 5 and 6 would be free to leave the country within a defined period of time. Those in category 2 were to be sent toGermany, while category 3 Jews would be locked in the ghetto until their departure. Category 4 Jews would be exempt of all the above, but could never exercise civil rights equal to those enjoyed by other Hungarians.

Hard-line Nazis with wide experience in carrying out the Endlösung (Final Solution) knew that Szálasi’s plan was primarily intended for foreign consumption, but his categories and selective treatment caused them disappointment. They had set the physical annihilation of each and every Jew as their objective, regardless of age or gender. They were truly shocked when Arrow Cross officials came up with the idea of registering every Jew sent to Germany on a yellow ID card.  (In contrast, the Sztójay-government handed over almost half a million Hungarian citizens within 8 weeks without claiming a piece of paper in exchange.) In the face of Nazi protest, following Szálasi’s guidance, Arrow Cross officials started the ghettoisation of Budapest Jews, i.e. an arrangement that would keep them in the country. Eichmann and his team were also at a loss when after three weeks the death marches were stopped. As the Red Army gradually tightened its knot around Budapest, top members of the Arrow Cross government fled the capital. Overtaken by subsequent events, from then on Szálasi’s Jewish policy lost all relevance. The fate of Budapest Jews remained in the hands of medium-level and subordinate Arrow Cross officials left behind.


Compared to the events of the spring and summer of 1944, Szálasi’s policy could at times be seen as ‘moderate’. However, the situation was more complex then that. Szálasi had no intention of preventing the murderous rampage of his armed thugs as long as it did not seriously threaten public order in the capital; also, he left tens of thousands of Jews at the mercy of the Nazis without compunction. Although during the Arrow Cros regime Hungary was more in the grip of the Germans than under Regent Horthy and his prime minister Sztójay, it was also evident that Szálasi, believing in final victory to the end, took a firmer stance against uncompromising German demands in the Jewish question than the undistinguished and servile Sztójay did. His policy was dictated by real or imagined diplomatic interests.


6. Death Marches

 

On October 16, buildings marked by yellow stars were locked down for days. Jews inside were not allowed to leave for any reason whatsoever. Arrow Cross guards refused to let in doctors, nurses or mid-wives. First Eichmann and Gábor Vajna, the new government’s interior minister, and in a few days Veesenmayer and Szálasi agreed on the hand-over of Jews ostensibly for work in Germany. In fact, the agreement meant the resumption of deportations. The Germans planned to use able-bodied Hungarian Jews for the construction of new fortifications along the Hungarian-Austrian border, the Reich’s last line of defence.


Starting October 20, men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, and women between eighteen and forty received call-up notices. Of course, some 80-year-olds and children were rounded up as well. These people were organised into ‘trench-digging’ companies and taken to build defensive lines around Budapest. Many of these ‘trench-diggers’ died due to privations and torture at the hands of Arrow Cross guards. Executions by hand-grenades and machine guns were everyday occurrences.

The process during which some from the ‘trench-digging’ companies and other thousands rounded up in marked buildings in the early days of the month were sent off in the direction of Germany commenced on November 6. The Óbuda plant of Nagybátony–Újlak Brickyard was one of the main collection points. Subjected to Arrow Cross terror, people spent an average of two to three days at these sites without much food or water, under the open sky. After that, they set out under guard in the direction of the country’s western borders – on foot. Since, by that time, due the superior position of Allied air forces, the Germans and their Arrow Cross allies did not have the rail capacity that would have been required for the operation. Already exhausted, often ill and brutalised people were force-marched along the highway toward the border-crossing at Hegyeshalom. According to plans, each group was to reach the German (Austrian) border in eight days. In theory, officials were to provide shelter and provisions along the way, but in most cases this was simply forgotten. Stragglers too weak to continue and deserters were executed. By the time a group arrived at Hegyeshalom, the survivors had barely any strength left, while at the end of the journey heavy physical labour and concentration camps were to follow.

On arrival, even SS officers directing the transfer (Rudolf Höss, former commander of Auschwitz and Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann’s staff member) were shocked by the sight of people barely dragging themselves and obviously unable to work.

In response to the death marches, diplomats of neutral countries, the Papal nunciature, and members of the Zionist youth movement, the Halutzim embarked on a number of new relief and rescue operations. They followed columns with valid and forged protective documents or blank forms, and employing various tactics tried to lift as many from the groups as possible. Members of the diplomatic corps and Vatican representatives protested with Szálasi against the inhumanity of these death marches. These efforts were instrumental in convincing the Arrow Cross government to gradually stop these marches after two, two and a half weeks. Instead, the government started the ghettoisation of Jews left in the capital. At the end of November, the Germans managed to organise one more large-scale deportation. This time, members of a ‘protected labour battalion’, organised under pressure from neutral countries in early November, were packed by gendarmes into cattle cars and sent west. The last death march from Budapest set out on December 11, when 1200 residents of a detention house were sent in the direction of the country’s western border.

Besides the deported Budapest Jews, labour service battalions were also driven to the border between Hungary and Austria. At the end of these death marches approximately 50 thousand Hungarian Jews were handed over to German authorities. People were made to build fortifications under appalling conditions and subject to the brutality of German guards. The Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti was among the victims of the group driven on foot from Bor, Yugoslavia to the Austrian border.

The German units (SS, SA, Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend and Organisation Todt, etc.) ordered these forced labourers to work on a line of fortification along Austria’s eastern borders. Thirty-five thousand were taken to the Niederdonau region, and scattered in some twenty forced-labour camps stretching from Pozsonyligetfalu in Slovakia to Kőszeg in western Hungary, where they performed hard physical work under inhuman conditions and constant threats. At least eleven thousand perished, among them the literary historians Antal Szerb and Gábor Halász, the writer Andor Endre Gelléri and the poet György Sárközi. Twelve thousand Hungarian Jews were taken to labour camps to work on the Steiermark Nord defence line. Many there were beaten or shot to death, others died of disease or hunger. At least two thousand people lost their lives in those camps.


The majority of Hungarian Jews taken into the area of the Reich on death marches or in various labour service companies ended up in German concentration camps. Their suffering was prolonged in Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and other camps.


7. The International Ghetto

 

In line with Szálasi’s Jewish policy, Jews enjoying the protection of neutral countries were separated from the majority. By November 20, Jews with valid or forged documents for safe-conduct were settled in a few blocks of Újlipótváros, a district around the Pest bridge-head of Margaret Bridge. People moving into the area were robbed and harassed by Arrow Cross militias lying in ambush. Many were dragged to Arrow Cross headquarters housed in a building nearby at Szent István Boulevard 2. Legally there were 15,600 protected Jews in Budapest and living space allotted to them was already limited. Since, however, a large number of forged documents were in circulation, those holding these documents had to move into the few blocks of buildings variably called the ‘international’, ‘protected’ or ‘little ghetto’, which soon became unbearably overcrowded.

 

At times dozens of people crammed into a two-room apartment, and basements, attics and stairways were also full. Residents suffered from lack of adequate food and there was widespread starvation.

 

The international ghetto was frequently raided, and those arrested were often shot into the nearby Danube River. Once it became evident by early December that neutral countries would not recognise Szálasi’s regime and government, top Arrow Cross leaders lost interest in maintaining the international ghetto. The situation of protected Jews deteriorated steadily. During the month of December, Arrow Cross raiding parties, torture, murder and executions along the river became regular. In early January 1945, diplomats of neutral countries resettled some ten thousand people to the large ghetto, deciding that the chance of survival was better there. The approximately twenty thousand remaining Jews were liberated by Soviet troops on January 16, 1945.

 

8. The Budapest Ghetto

 

In the middle of November, the Arrow Cross government decided to move Jews left in Hungary and under the protection of neutral states into a ghetto. The administration of Jewish affairs in Budapest and the erection of the ghetto was entrusted to János Solymosi, deputy police chief of Budapest. He conducted one-sided negotiations with Lajos Stöckler, head of the Jewish Council reorganised after the Arrow Cross coup on ghetto boundaries, supplies and protection. The ghetto located in District VII. in Pest consisted of contiguous city blocks. Some forty thousand Jews from yellow-star buildings scattered around town were moved there, while twelve thousand Christians had to leave their homes. The exact boundaries of the ghetto were announced by Arrow Cross interior minister Gábor Vajna on November 29. The area was closed down on December 10. During the resettlement operation, Arrow Cross gangs preyed on Jews dragging their possession through the streets, robbing and, on more then one occasion (in the City Park, for instance) killing them. Due to constant raids, new arrivals and the partial evacuation of the international ghetto, the population of the large ghetto increased steadily, reaching seventy thousand by January 1945. The ghetto area was surrounded by a tall wooden fence and had a gate towards all four points of the compass.

 

The situation inside the ghetto deteriorated day by day. The effects of the Soviet siege, bombing raids and shrapnel obviously did not spare the ghetto either. Just like everywhere in the city, food supplies were scarce; towards the end masses, primarily the old and the sick, starved to death. Arrow Cross forays and raids cost many lives. Under dire circumstances, most members of the Jewish Council did everything in their power to provide medical care, food, protection and some solace to those struggling to survive inside the ghetto. Chief rabbi Béla Berend held services to the faithful as bombs were falling. Ottó Komoly, who, besides being a Council member, played a leading role in Red Cross relief and rescue operations, was kidnapped and murdered by the Arrow Cross. Similar fate awaited Miklós Szegő, one of the most active members of the Council. The Jewish Council set up and operated community kitchens and hospitals with very limited resources. Miksa Domonkos deserves special mention. Dressed in his army captain’s uniform, wearing no yellow star, he passed himself off as a Ministry of Defence liaison officer ordered to the Council’s headquarters. With his firm demeanour, he forced the withdrawal of Arrow Cross gangs on several occasions. Together with Stöckler, to the last day Domonkos turned up wherever he was needed and displaying extraordinary personal courage, organised life in the ghetto in the face of extreme danger.

 

Along with the municipal government, the International Red Cross and the Zionist Youth Movement were active in securing food and other supplies for the ghetto. The liaison officer of the Arrow Cross Party and the police, party member Pál Szalai assisted the Council and the ghetto in any way he could. From the middle of December, police chief István Lőcsey took over responsibility for Jewish affairs in Budapest. He organised a permanent security force made up of joint Arrow Cross and police patrols (dominated by the police) for the protection of the ghetto and its Jewish inhabitants. While the operation was successful for the most part, in early January several murders were committed in the ghetto. Szalai had to order an additional 100 police officers to the area to limit the number of further Arrow Cross raids.


In mid-January 1945, rumours spread in the capital that certain Arrow Cross and Nazi units planned a massive last pogrom and the liquidation of the ghetto – the mass murder of its residents. Stöckler and Domonkos informed Szalai, who in turn questioned Arrow Cross Main Commissary of Budapest Ernő Vajna. When Vajna confirmed the plan, Szalai turned to major-general Gerhard Schmidthuber, the commander of Wehrmacht forces in Pest, who gave orders to call off the operation.


The main ghetto was liberated a few days later, on January 18 by advancing units of the Soviet army. In Budapest approximately eight thousand Jewish citizens were murdered by around four thousand Arrow Cross militiamen; another nine thousand fell victim to bombing raids, starvation and disease, or committed suicide.

 

9. Arrow Cross terror in Budapest

 

Till the end of December, the Glass House on Vadász Street enjoyed the protection of the Swiss Embassy. The Halutzim (young Zionists) directed their underground relief and rescue operations from that building. Since the building was believed to be a safe haven, by the end of December some two thousand Jews had moved in. On the last day of 1944, an Arrow Cross unit broke into the compound and scores of people were either killed or wounded. A police patrol and some regular army soldiers arrived and forced the Arrow Cross to retreat. However, the next day they returned, arrested and killed the owner and ‘commander’ of the building Artúr Weiss.


The major ghetto hospitals operated outside the walls of the ghetto. Prior to the German occupation, the Jewish Hospital on Szabolcs Street was one of the country’s most modern and best-equipped medical institution. The occupying forces seized the building and all the equipment. The Jewish Council set up two emergency hospitals, one under 44 Wesselényi Street, the other at 2 Bethlen Gábor Square. During the Arrow Cross era these institutions, which managed to operate continuously, were placed under the protection of the International Red Cross, in the hope that this would keep marauding Arrow Cross gangs away. Faced with increasingly difficult conditions and the constant shortages of medicine, food and electricity, exploding ordinance and regular Arrow Cross raids, doctors continued to cure the ill and bring to life children born even in these cruel times. Every day, György Frank and his surgeon colleagues operated a dozen patients on a kitchen table covered by a bed sheet. Thanks to the work of paediatricians led by head physician Ferenc Groszmann, all babies born in those days survived. Dr. László Benedek was indefatigable in procuring supplies for the hospital.

 

On December 28, 1944, a gang of  Arrow Cross militiamen and Hungarian SS soldiers of German descent attacked the hospital at Bethlen Square. They robbed and beat those inside, then kidnapped and killed two dozen men. On the Buda side, two Jewish hospitals on Maros and Városmajor Streets were similarly attacked. These were also under the protection of the International Red Cross, which did not stop the raiding parties. On January 11, 1945, approximately one hundred doctors, patients and nurses were tortured and killed in Maros Street. A former Carmelite monk, András Kun, also known in Pest as ‘Friar Kun’ and notorious for his cruelty in Pest, took part in the slaughter. Dressed in his priest habit, with a weapon in hand he ordered his companions to fire at the Jews in the “Sacred name of Christ”. On January 14, 1945, the hospital on Városmajor Street, and five days later the Jewish nursing home on Alma Street were attacked, claiming a total of around two hundred lives.

A couple of days later Pest was liberated by the Russian troops, but the siege went on in the Buda side of the city till 13 February, 1945. According to different estimations approximately 8000 Jews were killed by the Arrow Cross during this period.