Budapest, Hungary · February 14, 1945

On December 29, 1944, Soviet and Romanian troops (Romania 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 in 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 lived) 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.

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

Arrow Cross militia, German soldiers and tank, October 1944Arrest of Jews in Budapest, 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 (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 SynagogueStreet fighting in Budapest

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 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 Battle of Budapest 1944–1945 Set to Music and Words