On November 20, 1940, Hungarian Prime minister Pál Teleki signed the Tripartite Pact making Hungary the fourth power after Germany, Italy and Japan to join the Axis during World War II.
During the 1930s, the newly independent Kingdom of Hungary relied on increased trade with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to pull itself out of the joint effects of the Great Depression and the Treaty of Trianon, and as a result, Hungarian politics and foreign policy became increasingly nationalistic.
Under the regency of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy, Hungary shifted to the right and adopted an irredentist policy similar to Germany’s, attempting to incorporate ethnic Hungarian areas in neighboring countries into Hungary. Notably, Hungary used its relationship with the Germany to attempt to revise the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.
After Hungary openly repudiated the Treaty’s restrictions on its armed forces, and with Germany well into its own revision of the Versailles Treaty, with the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss of Austria, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini sought to peacefully enforce the claims of Hungarians on territories the Kingdom had lost to Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1920.
As a direct consequence of the Munich Agreement, which had decided the partitioning of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the First Vienna Award separated largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Rus from Czechoslovakia and transferred them to Hungary. In March 1939, Hitler gave Hungary permission to occupy the rest of Carpatho-Ukraine, and in August 1940, the Second Vienna Award assigned Northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary.
In September 1940, with World War II now well underway, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the defensive military alliance known as the Tripartite Pact which, together with the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan, and the so-called “Pact of Steel” between Germany and Italy, integrated the military aims of the three powers and formed the main basis of the Axis.
Two months later, under increasing pressure from Germany, Hungarian Prime minister Pál Teleki, who strongly desired to remain neutral, reluctantly signed the Pact and Hungary became the fourth state to officially join the Axis, followed three days later by Romania and the German puppet-state of Slovakia. Bulgaria and Yugoslavia later joined in March 1941.
In April 1941, unable to further prevent Hungary’s participation in the war, Teleki committed suicide. And three days later, Hungarian forces participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia alongside German and Italian troops.
Strongly objecting to the invasion of Yugoslavia, Teleki left a suicide note saying: “We broke our word out of cowardice. We have thrown away our honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels. We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”
In June 1941, Hungary declared war against the Soviet Union and joined Operation Barbarossa. By 1942, tens of thousands of Hungarians were fighting on the Eastern front.
But after suffering terrible losses at the Battle of Stalingrad and being effectively crushed by the Soviets at the Battle of Voronezh in 1943, the Hungarian army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force, and the Germans pulled them from the front. Meanwhile, worried about Hungary’s increasing reliance on Germany, Admiral Horthy and Prime minister Miklós Kállay engaged in separate peace negotiations with the Western Allies.
Aware of Horthy’s and Kállay’s deceit and fearing that Hungary might conclude a separate peace, Hitler launched Operation Margarethe and in March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary and Horthy was placed under house arrest.
Although most Jews in Hungary had been protected from deportation to extermination camps for the first few years of the war, more than 500,000 of them and 28,000 Roma are believed to have been deported after the German occupation.
In 1945, Axis forces in Hungary were defeated by advancing Soviet armies. Approximately 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and more than 600,000 civilians died during World War II.
After its surrender, Hungary’s borders were returned to their pre-1938 lines. They remain the same today.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.