Hungary Magazine

On this Day, in 1944: Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross Party took power in Hungary

On October 15, 1944, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Panzerfaust and forced the regent of the Kingdom of Hungary Miklós Horthy to abdicate in favour of the leader of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi.

During the 1930s, the newly independent Kingdom of Hungary, under the regency of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy, adopted an increasingly irredentist policy in an attempt to incorporate ethnic Hungarian areas in neighbouring countries into Hungary. Horthy notably used his relationship with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to attempt to revise the Treaty of Trianon, which saw Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory at the end of World War I.

As a direct consequence of the Munich Agreement, which had decided the partitioning of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the First and Second Vienna Awards separated largely Magyar-populated territories in Czechoslovakia and Romania and transferred them to Hungary.

Hungary and the Axis

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.

But 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 in March 1944.

Operation Margarethe

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 immediately. 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.

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.

Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross Party

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. At 2:00 p.m. on October 15, Horthy announced in a national radio broadcast that Hungary had signed an armistice with the Soviets.

But, anticipating Horthy’s move, Hitler launched Operation Panzerfaust and forced Horthy to abrogate the armistice and to abdicate in favour of the leader of the far-right National Socialist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi. Horthy was taken into custody and Szálasi became Prime Minister of a new Government of National Unity, which turned Hungary into a puppet state of Nazi Germany.

Ferenc Szálasi received a free hand to launch a reign of terror against the Jews of Budapest, where thousands were tortured, raped and murdered in the last months of the war. His government promoted martial law and courts-martial, and executed those who were considered dangerous for the state and the continuation of the war, conscripting young and old into the remaining Hungarian Army and sent them into hopeless battles against the Red Army.

Szálasi fled the capital during the Siege of Budapest. He was captured by American troops in Mattsee in May 1945 before being tried by the People’s Tribunal in Budapest and sentenced to death for war crimes and high treason. He was hanged on March 12, 1946, along with two of his former ministers, Gábor Vajna and Károly Beregfy, and the party ideologist József Gera.

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