The fallen soldier is a heroic dead

As every year, the anniversary of the breakout from Buda Castle 11 February 1945 has stirred up a lot of emotions. It is a fact that after the Second World War, we, Hungarians could only deal with our participation in the Second World War, the fighting activities of our armed forces and the events of the Hungarian theatre of war from a class-warrior perspective and in a condemnatory way.

The result is that, although three decades have passed since the regime change, there are still many misconceptions, half-truths and lies surrounding the siege of Budapest and the outbreak.

There are historians who, even today, insist that the Red Army came to our country as a liberation force, who claim that the Hungarian Royal Army committed genocide in Ukraine and who condemn our participation in the war. They ignore the fact that we joined the ranks of the belligerents because of our geopolitical position, in order to defend the results of our country's gains, and charitably forget that " trivia", that the Red Army, with the assistance of their Muscovite Hungarian comrades, systematically plundered our country, murdered defenceless civilians, defiled countless Hungarian women and girls, and took hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens to the Malenky robot.

Judging the events of that time on the basis of our knowledge today, through rose-tinted glasses is certainly a historian's folly, since in addition to the knowledge and correct use of sources, the researcher needs to be familiar with the public thinking and the mentality of the people of the time in order to be able to work according to the principle of sine ira et studio rather than according to current political aspects. The final outcome of the siege endured by the generation of our parents and grandparents  still affects us today, so it is no wonder that the reinterpretation of the events year after year is a politically and ideologically charged process. Seventy-seven years after the events, it is easy to be clever, to interpret what happened at the time from behind a desk, and to ask a series of ignorant questions: what were we doing in the Second World War? Why did we have to hold Budapest to the end? Why did the Hungarian defenders not defect en masse to the liberators?

Ruined view of Pest from the foot of the Turul statue in Buda Castle Photo of János Hunyad, reserve armoured division lieutenant (collection of Zoltán Babucs)  

It can be stated that until 1945, no fortress defended by the Germans surrendered, but their soldiers fought to the end or broke out instead of becoming prisoners of war, which meant a death sentence. For the Germans, in the face of the ideological struggle so characteristic of the Eastern Front, Budapest was indeed a fortress where they wanted to halt the Communist advance from reaching their Fatherland. The Prussian drill, discipline and sense of duty instilled in them, as well as the fear of becoming prisoners of war, greatly contributed to their fighting to the last breath. That is why, during the outbreak, German officers and soldiers who were seriously wounded or trapped preferred suicide to capture.

The Hungarian soldiers were in no easier position, and they were defending their own capital, which was contested by two totalitarian regimes. Anti-Bolshevism was deeply ingrained in the Christian and national education of the generations attending schools after 1920, as Hungary had had a taste of the Red dictatorship in 1919 and understandably asked for no more. After 1941, the majority of the Hungarian soldiers had the opportunity to experience the superior "Soviet paradise" in the Eastern theatre of operations, and they did not appreciate it at all. Countless field notes ended with the words "God save us from the Soviets reaching our country". By the autumn of 1944, this nonetheless happened, and after the failed breakout attempt, the army was plunged into a moral crisis from which it could not recover. Many were fed up with the war, and the soldiers whose home villages had been captured by the Soviets must have felt that there was no longer any reason for them to continue fighting. In the spirit of their oaths, they continued to fight, or fell behind their units and tried to avoid capture. The soldiers, trapped in the ring and under German command, were eventually faced with the choice of either being captured by the Soviets or fighting alongside them if they wanted to survive. Naturally, it was not world-changing ideals that swayed the soldiers who sided with the Soviets, but their instinct to survive and the desire to end the war as soon as possible and avoid the dreaded Siberian captivity. The soldiers who remained on the side of the Germans were motivated not only by the loyalty to their comrades-in-arms, but also by their faith in the Germans, the defence of their homeland, anti-Bolshevism or even the sentiment that "the world is just one day". They also feared the future, but in no way did they turn their weapons against themselves during the breakout; when they had no other choice, they surrendered.

The hardest hit were the defenceless civilians hiding in cellars and shelters who did not know what tomorrow would hold for them. They were right to fear that the Soviets would take their revenge on them, as they had done in many Hungarian settlements.

Even today, there are those who believe that the soldiers - and the forced labourers - who fought with honour in the curve of the Don and who died there, cannot be heroes, only victims. They also think that the soldiers of the Royal Hungarian Army who took part in the operations on the Eastern Front were all fascist brigands who exterminated half of the population of Ukraine. They make all these claims as they rely only on Soviet archival sources, but to get to the truth it is worth studying the writings of two excellent historians, Sándor Szakály and Péter Szabó on the involvement of Hungary in the Second World War. Indeed, from the summer of 1941 a completely different, brutal war unfolded behind the front lines for which the Hungarian troops deployed were by no means prepared.

The Royal Hungarian Army was originally trained for the revisionist war against the neighbouring countries and for fighting against the Soviet Union, and in addition, the extreme weather conditions also tested the soldiers. The occasional, violent Hungarian actions against the local population and the partisans (who were not subject to the law of war) can only partly be explained by the spiral of violence.

As I have already described above, the Hungarian society of the time, including the officers and soldiers serving in the army, was characterised by revisionism and anti-Bolshevism; the actions of the 1919 Soviet Commune resulting the territorial loss of the country and the population were still alive in the national memory, and were therefore also manifested in their deeds. Initially, there were violent excesses among the Hungarian occupying troops, but these were few in number, whereas later the retreating soldiers were subjected to numerous atrocities by the growing partisan movement and the local population.

It's easy to pull out the "guilty nation" card again. It demonstrates class-warrior, anti-fascist logic if - in addition to the Arrow Cross Nazis and the gendarmes - all soldiers and civilians - from children to old age pensioners - in other words the entire Hungarian society of the time, are collectively considered potential war criminals because they did nothing to bring the war to a speedy end and did not wait with open arms for the Soviet soldiers who were trying to liberate them and free them of their valuables.  But war is not a child's game, and historians who study the period should know that the obligations of the Royal Hungarian Army were laid down in a number of regulations, such as the Service Regulations, which were the internal rules of the army, and the Rules of Engagement, which were issued in 1939 and prescribed the conduct of the army engaged in war, i.e. the Royal Hungarian Army was not a ragtag band of bandits.

Soldiers who were conscripted and killed in action, regardless of the cause they fought for, should be considered heroic dead, not victims. They were following orders, even if they had to sacrifice their lives, because in armies orders are given and carried out, and orders given should not be overruled, especially in wartime, since disobedience, disruption and defeatism are punishable by martial law. If they cannot be heroic dead, then - to continue the line of thought - neither can the Hungarian soldiers who fought in the Great War "for king and country", nor our ancestors who fought in our wars of independence because they ended up on the side of the losers, not the victors.

The statue of Friar Julian and Friar Gellért was also hit by several bullets. Photo of János Hunyad, reserve armoured division lieutenant (collection of Zoltán Babucs)

I am one of those Hungarians who, despite the loss of the war, still regard their grandfather's generation as heroes and not war criminals. Six members of my family donned the uniform of the Royal Hungarian Army and three of them gave their lives for our country. They did not want to die, they too were waited for by their loved ones, but their sacrifice for the country turned them - like so many of their generation - into heroes. We had to keep silent about them under communism, but since the change of regime we can now commemorate them.  Human lives cannot be redeemed in money, but as a moral compensation their memory deserves to be honoured and cherished.

The question has been given since 1945: did the Red Army liberate or occupy Budapest? The Soviets, of course, propagated the liberation of Budapest to the Western Allies, but the question was clearly decided already in 1945, when a commemorative medal was founded for the capture - and not the liberation -of Budapest.  In Hungary, just as in Budapest, few people felt that the Soviets arrived as liberators and not as propagators of another totalitarian idea and new conquerors. For the Hungarians, the end of the fighting was mostly about relief from the suffering of war, not liberation. This was already well perceived by our contemporaries, who founded a commemorative medal for the capture of Budapest - not for its liberation.
Az ostromot budai villájuk pincéjében átvészelő dr. Lux Gyula nyugalmazott tanügyi főtanácsos, első világháborús tartalékos hadnagy naplójában olvashatjuk az alábbiakat: „Elbuktunk! Elbuktunk? Nem! Nem! Igaz, hogy nagyon jól fejbe kólintottak és ájultan hevertünk egy jó ideig. A csapás, amelyet elszenvedtünk, kegyetlen volt, s mi tehetetlenül vergődtünk a lét és nemlét között. Erre a csapásra nem voltunk elkészülve, mert nem tartottuk lehetségesnek, hogy ilyen csapás érhet bennünket. Túlságosan bíztunk magunkban és túlságosan lebecsültük ellenfeleinket. Csalódásunk kegyetlen volt, és csaknem kibírhatatlan lelki krízist váltott ki. Összeomlott lelkünkben egy világ […].” 
Teljesen igaza volt, mert a „nagy európai gondolat” jegyében összelőtt Budapesten az élet megindulásakor a hódító győztesek és magyar segítőik azonnal nekiláttak, hogy romeltakarítás ürügyén ne csak a temetetlen holttesteket, a roncsokat és a törmelékeket, hanem a Magyar Királyság politikai és társadalmi berendezkedését is eltüntessék. 

In the diary of Dr. Gyula Lux, retired senior adviser for education, a reserve lieutenant in the First World War, who survived the siege in the cellar of their villa in Buda, we read the following: "We failed!  We failed? No! No! It is true that we were knocked on the head and lay unconscious for quite a while. The blow we received was cruel, and we were helplessly floundering between being and not being. We were not prepared for this blow; for we did not think it possible that such a blow could befall us. We trusted ourselves too much and underestimated our opponents too much. Our disappointment was cruel and caused an almost unbearable mental crisis. A world collapsed in our souls [...]."

He was absolutely right, because, as soon as life began in Budapest, the conquering victors and their Hungarian assistants immediately started to clear away not only the unburied corpses, the wreckage and the debris, but also the political and social structure of the Kingdom of Hungary, under the pretext of clearing away the ruins.

Babucs Zoltán ügyvivő szakértőnk véleménycikke a Magyar Nemzet 2021. február 16-i lapszámában és online felületén is megjelent.

The opinion piece by Zoltán Babucs, researcher of the Institute of Hungarian Research was published in the 16 February 2021 issue and the online platform of Magyar Nemzet newspaper.