Budapest, Hungary February 14, 1945

On December 29, 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops (Romania had broken from the Axis and was now a Soviet ally) began laying siege to Buda­pest, the capi­tal of Adolf Hitler’s vas­sal state of Hun­gary. Buda­pest, split in two by the River Danube, was a city of over 800,000 resi­dents and refu­gees, in­cluding well over 100,000 Jews living in Europe’s only surviving ghetto or in hiding.

On this date, February 14, 1945, Budapest’s 35,000-man German gar­ri­son entered Soviet cap­tivity in a mini-replay of the Ger­man Sixth Army’s sur­ren­der at Stalin­grad in late Janu­ary–early Febru­ary 1943. The indus­trial area of Pest on the left (east) bank of the Danube had been cleared of German troops in mid-January, but troops on the right (west) bank in Buda, supported by heavy artil­lery that com­manded the heights over the city where the royal palace was located, held out until it was clear that relief efforts had failed. Heavy fighting and heavy artillery turned the palace into a heap of ruins.

The human cost of one of the fiercest battles of World War II was extreme: 80,000 Soviet troops perished, as well as 38,000 Ger­man and Hun­garian defenders (out of the ori­ginal 70,000) and 38,000 Hun­garian civil­ians—25,000 civil­ians from star­va­tion, dis­ease, and other nonmili­tary causes. No other Euro­pean capital—apart from Warsaw and Berlin—suffered a simi­lar fate, with sol­diers on both sides engaging in tank and artil­lery duels and hand-to-hand combat one street, one building, and one cellar (where most resi­dents were forced to live) at a time. Trag­ically, German and Hun­garian resis­tance to the Soviet advance permitted the native Arrow Cross fas­cists, in power since Octo­ber 1944, to mas­sacre some 15,000 of Buda­pest’s Jews who had managed to escape deportation to Nazi death camps.

In March 1945, with Hungary nearly rid of German troops (the last units retreated south­ward into Yugo­sla­via on April 4), half a million Soviet com­bat and sup­port troops launched an offen­sive to take Vienna, capi­tal of neigh­boring Aus­tria to the west. On March 30 troops crossed the Aus­trian frontier and seven days later smashed their way into Vienna. By April 13 they had completed its cap­ture, seven years short of one month after Hitler had forced Anschluss (union) on the country of his birth.

Siege of Budapest, December 29, 1944, to February 14, 1945

Hungary’s Arrow Cross militia, German soldiers and tank, Budapest, October 1944Arrest of Jews in Budapest, Hungary, October 1944

Left: Hungarian Arrow Cross Party militia stand at atten­tion. In the back­ground are German sol­diers and a Ger­man tank, Buda­pest, mid-October 1944. The Ger­mans helped the fascist Arrow Cross Party seize the reins of govern­ment after Miklós Horthy, Regent of the King­dom of Hun­gary (regency 1920–1944), announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the war.

Right: German and Hungarian soldiers drive Jews rounded up in Buda­pest into the City Theater, October 1944. During the short rule of the Arrow Cross Party (Octo­ber 15, 1944, to March 28, 1945), between 10,000 and 15,000 peo­ple (many Jews among them) were mur­dered outright—thousands were shot on the banks of the Danube—and 80,000 peo­ple were deported from Hun­gary to their deaths in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Arrow Cross with Jewish victims, Dohány (Tabakgasse) Synagogue, Budapest, HungarySiege of Budapest: Street fighting in Budapest, Hungary

Left: Jewish victims of Arrow Cross militia in the court­yard-cum-ceme­tery of the Dohány Street Syna­gogue, which bordered the Buda­pest Ghetto at its rear. The largest syna­gogue in Europe, “The Great Syna­gogue” (or “Tabak­gasse Syna­gogue” by which it was also known) was used as a base for Ger­man radio broad­casts and as a horse stable during the war. Over 2,000 ghetto residents who died from hunger and cold during the harsh winter of 1944–1945 were buried here. A rear court­yard a short distance away holds the “Memorial of the Hun­garian Jewish Martyrs”—at least 400,000 Hun­garian Jews were mur­dered by the Nazis and their Hun­garian col­labo­rators. The memo­rial is a polished metal sculp­ture resembling a weeping willow whose leaves bear inscriptions with the names of victims.

Right: Street fighting in Budapest. A third of the nearly 80,000 Ger­man and Hun­garian soldiers who fought the Soviet advance were killed and the rest ended up in Soviet cap­tivity. After liberating the whole of Hun­gary in early April 1945, the Soviets brought mem­bers of the Arrow Cross government to trial and executed them.

Scenes from the Siege of Budapest 1944–1945 Set to Music and Words