Budapest, Occupied Hungary October 17, 1944

On this date in 1944 Adm. Miklós (Nicholas) Horthy, regent of the Kingdom of Hungary since 1920, left his native country as a prisoner of Nazi Germany. Horthy had angered Adolf Hitler after the latter had received confi­den­tial reports that the 76‑year-old Hunga­rian head of state was secretly nego­ti­ating a peace agree­ment with the Soviet Union in order to prevent an inva­sion of his country. If Horthy had succeeded, more than a million German soldiers could con­ceiv­ably have wound up as prisoners of the Red Army, now closing in on Hungary’s eastern border. Only the kidnap­ping at gun­point of Horthy Sr.’s son, “Miki” Horthy Jr., who two days earlier had been captured meeting with envoys of anti-Nazi Yugo­slavian leader Josip Broz Tito in Buda­pest—a “snatch oper­a­tion” (Oper­a­tion Panzer­faust, or Armor Fist, aka Oper­a­tion Mickey Mouse) engi­neered by Hitler’s swash­buckling com­mando, SS Major Otto Skor­zeny—con­vinced the regent to abdi­cate in favor of a pro-German puppet govern­ment of Hungarian fascists, the Arrow Cross, who fought on the side of the Axis for the remainder of the war.

In the summer of 1944, after 11 divisions of the Wehr­macht had crossed into Hungary on March 19 (Operation Marga­rethe) and while Horthy was still head of state, the the elite Nazi guard, the Schutz­staffel (SS), and their Hun­garian accom­plices had succeeded in deporting half a million Jews to the Auschwitz ovens in neigh­boring Poland. Under the post-Horthy Arrow Cross govern­ment, the round­up, depor­ta­tion, and killing of Hun­gary’s remaining Jews, esti­mated at a quarter mil­lion, shifted into high gear under the watch­ful eye of SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eich­mann. (Eich­mann and his SS detach­ment facili­tated and managed the logistics of the mass depor­ta­tion of Hungary’s Jews to ghettos and Nazi concen­tra­tion and death camps in Poland and Austria.) Gangs of trigger-happy Arrow Cross youths armed with auto­matic weapons pulled hun­dreds from their homes or off the streets, beat and plundered them, and exe­cuted them in broad day­light. Jewish corpses lay pooled in blood on Buda­pest’s streets. Other Jews were marched to bridges across the Danube or to the river­bank, cursed at and shot, their bodies tossed into the swirling gray water or onto floating ice. Some Jews preferred sui­cide; others were success­ful in dodging Arrow Cross gangs to find refuge with Christian friends who bravely agreed to hide them or in “safe houses” estab­lished and pro­tected by human­i­tar­ian organi­za­tions and net­works such as the one established by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

The fortunes of the Nazi-client Arrow Cross govern­ment were being reversed even as the reins of power shifted from Horthy to Ferenc Szálasi (1897–1946) and his viru­lently anti-Semitic thugs. Their neme­sis was the Red Army and its (now) Roma­nian ally, whose com­bined forces began encircling the Hun­ga­rian capital on Novem­ber 19, 1944. During the 102‑day siege of Buda­pest, German and Hun­ga­rian armies fell back from Pest across the Danube to Buda. Szálasi escaped the city on Decem­ber 9. Eich­mann was gone by December 24. Despite a lack of supplies, Axis troops refused to surren­der and defended every street and house. Finally, on the night of Febru­ary 11, 1945, some 28,000 des­per­ate German and Hun­ga­rian troops attempted a break­out. The majority of the escapees were killed, wounded, or captured. The remaining defenders surren­dered on Febru­ary 13, 1945. The Soviet-led Battle of Buda­pest and the ensuing Vienna Offen­sive were dress rehears­als before the final Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945) and the apocalyptic collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Timeline: Liquidating Hungary’s Jews, 1941–1945

Miklós Horthy and Adolf Hitler, 1938Panzerfaust chief Skorzeny, Castle Hill, Budapest, October 16, 1944

Left: Miklós Horthy (1868–1957) and Adolf Hitler in Nazi puppet state Slo­vakia (the eastern half of the former Czecho­slo­vakia), 1938. For half a decade Horthy had hitched his coun­try’s for­tunes to Hitler’s Germany. He allowed the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) to stage units on Hun­garian soil that over­threw govern­ments in Yugo­slavia and Greece in April 1941; he sent well over 160,000 Hun­garians, among them tens of thou­sands of Jewish forced laborers, to their death or into brutal cap­tiv­ity in the Soviet Union in 1941–1943 (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa and Battle of Stalin­grad). An anti-Semite all his life, he dispatched half a million Hun­garian Jews to die in Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camps in neigh­boring Poland, chiefly at Auschwitz. Even before then Horthy had come to realize he’d made a poor wager and looked for ways to extri­cate his nation from the predic­table cala­mity that the Allied armies would inflict—indeed, were already inflicting—on their enemies. As it turned out, it was all too late.

Right: SS-Sturmbannfuehrer (Major) Otto Skorzeny (left) and two SS col­leagues on Castle Hill, the govern­ment dis­trict in Buda, Octo­ber 16, 1944. Hitler entrusted Skor­zeny—famous for having snatched Hitler’s Ital­ian pal Benito Musso­lini from his Allied captors the year before—with kid­napping Miklós (“Miki”) Horthy, Jr. Kidnap­ping the younger Horthy was intended to force his regent father to abdi­cate as head of state following the pre­lim­i­nary armi­stice terms Hun­garian emis­saries had eked out with the Soviet Union on Octo­ber 11. (Horthy Sr. abdi­cated in exchange for his son’s life.) Skor­zeny took father and son back to Germany, where the senior Horthy lived under round-the-clock SS guard until freed by elements of Lt. Gen. Alex­an­der Patch’s Seventh U.S. Army. The younger Horthy sur­vived his impri­son­ment at Dachau concen­tra­tion camp. Escaping post­war trial at Nurem­berg, Skor­zeny con­sulted for several un­savory indi­vid­uals and groups. The two Horthys went into exile in Portugal after the war.

Hungarian gendarme corralling Budapest Jews, 1944Arrow Cross militiamen march in Buda’s Castle district, October 1944

Left: A gendarme from the Hungarian Interior Minis­try assists in sweeping up Buda­pest’s Jews. In the middle of June 1944 the Jews of Buda­pest, who made up just under one-quarter of the capi­tal’s popu­la­tion, were forci­bly relo­cated and required to reside in desig­nated “yellow-star houses,” 1,944 single-building mini-ghettos identi­fied by a yellow Star of David over the entrance. In the first days of the Arrow Cross coming to power in mid-Octo­ber, thou­sands of Jews were forced to move again, this time into two ghetto districts, where neutral states (Sweden, Switzer­land, Portu­gal, Spain, and the Vati­can) and the Inter­national Red Cross pro­vided protec­tion for those holding Schutz­paesse, or protec­tive pass­ports. Issued by employees of the neutral lega­tions, these pass­port-like docu­ments with official-looking stamps fre­quently saved Jews from deportation to the death camps.

Right: Arrow Cross militiamen cross St. George Square in the Castle Hill district of Buda near the Royal (Buda) Castle, the former resi­dence of the deposed Hunga­rian regent and head of state, Adm. Miklós Horthy. Photo probably taken on Octo­ber 15 or 16, 1944, when the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party seized power in a German-engineered coup d’état.

Arrow Cross with Jewish victims, Dohány SynagogueCan Togay and Gyula Pauer, "The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" memorial, Budapest, 2005

Left: Jewish victims of Arrow Cross militia lie strewn in the court­yard-cum-ceme­tery of the Dohány Street Syna­gogue, which anchored the southern end of Buda­pest’s sealed-off General Ghetto of 70,000 Jews. The largest syna­gogue in Europe and the second-largest Jewish place of wor­ship in the world, “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: “The Shoes on the Danube Promenade” memorial on the Pest (eastern) bank of the river in Buda­pest not far from the Hun­garian Par­lia­ment building. Executing the capital’s Jews on the blood­stained bank of the Danube was con­ven­ient because the river carried the bodies away. The Arrow Cross mur­derers—many of them still in their teens—would often force their victims—men, women, and children—to remove their shoes before shooting them. After all, shoes were a valu­able com­modity that could be used imme­di­ately or else traded on the black market. During the Arrow Cross Party’s reign of terror (mid-October 1944 to late January 1945), the Danube was known as “the Jewish Ceme­tery.” Installed in 2005, Can Togay and Gyula Pauer’s poign­ant cast iron memo­rial of 60 pair of owner­less shoes commem­o­rates the 38,000 victims of such unimaginable hatred, brutality, and immorality.

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