Hungary Magazine

On this Day, in 1944: Nazi Germany invaded Hungary

On March 19, 1944, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Hungary to stop the Axis power from signing a seperate peace with Allies, bringing the relative security from the Holocaust enjoyed by the Hungarian Jews to an end.

During the 1930s, the newly independent Kingdom of Hungary, under the regency of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy, adopted an irredentist policy similar to Nazi Germany’s, attempting to incorporate ethnic Hungarian areas in neighboring countries, notably using its relationship with Adolf Hitler to attempt to revise the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

In 1938, following the Munich Agreement, the First Vienna Award transferred the largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Rus from Czechoslovakia to Hungary. By 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, Hungary became the fourth state to officially join the Axis, after Germany, Italy and Japan, when Hungarian Prime Minister Pál Teleki, pressured by Germany, signed the defensive military alliance known as the Tripartite Pact. Romania and the German puppet-state of Slovakia, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia soon followed.

After participating in the invasion of Yugoslavia, Hungary declared war on 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 virtually obliterated at the Battle of Voronezh in 1943, the Hungarian army was effectively pulled from the front.

With the Axis losing the initiative on the Eastern front and with the Red Army knocking at Hungary’s borders, Miklós Horthy and Prime Minister Miklós Kállay secretly sought to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, promising to surrender unconditionally to them once they reached Hungarian territory. Aware of Horthy’s deceit, an enraged Hitler summoned the regent to a conference in Klessheim Castle near Salzburg on March 15, 1944.

Hitler pressured Horthy to make greater contributions to the German war effort and commanded him to hand over the 825,000 Hungarian Jews to German authorities immediatly. But the meeting mainly served as a ruse, and as the two heads of state conducted their negotiations, German forces quietly marched from Nazi-occupied Austria towards Hungary.

In the early hours of March 19, as Horthy and the Hungarian delegation returned to Budapest, the Wehrmacht launched Operation Margarethe, the codename for the invasion and occupation of Hungary, effectively reducing the country to a German protectorate. Horthy was placed under house arrest, Döme Sztójay, became the new Prime Minister, with actual power resting with the German military governor, Edmund Veesenmayern.

In was during that time that SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann arrived in Hungary, tasked with supervising the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. And so, with the help of Sztójay’s Minister of the Interior, Andor Jaross, and his two rabidly anti-Semitic state secretaries, László Endre and László Baky, known as the “Deportation Trio”, the relative security from the Holocaust enjoyed by the Jews of Hungary came to an end.

The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews and Roma to Auschwitz began in May and continued at a rate of over 10,000 a day, until the end of July. By that time, 437,000 Jews and Roma had been sent to Auschwitz, most of them to their deaths.

By October 1944, with the Red Army closing in on Budapest, Miklós Horthy once again attempted to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, hoping to surrender to the Soviets while preserving the Hungarian government’s autonomy. But, anticipating Horthy’s move, Hitler removed the regent from power and replaced him with the leader by the far-right National Socialist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi, who received a free hand to continue the terror against the Jews.

Despite the rescue efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and others, more than 500,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma are believed to have been deported after the German occupation of Hungary.

Operation Margarethe II was the name for the planned invasion of Romania by German forces should the Romanian government decide to surrender to the Soviet Union and switch sides. But while Romania did in fact switch sides in August 1944, after King Michael’s Coup, the operation was never launched.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.