Added 16 November 2006.


Kristián Ungváry: Battle for Budapest

The battles of the Eastern Front, with the possible exceptions of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad and Kursk, receive less attention in the West than their importance warrants, and Budapest is perhaps now more remembered either for the 1956 uprising or else nowadays as a place for British stag and hen parties to visit. Yet in the winter of 1944-45 the capital city of Hungary was subject to a 100-day siege that caused massive destruction and something in the region of 200-300,000 casualties. Half of the defenders' casualties were civilians, while half of all Soviet soldiers killed in Hungary died fighting in the siege.

Dr Ungváry has written a detailed and well documented yet at the same time gripping and readable account of what became known as "the second Stalingrad". The end of Communist Party hegemony in Hungary has allowed both sides of the story to be told, including some unpalatable facts about the Soviet liberation. But this is to get ahead of the story.

The background to the siege lays in the importance of Hungary as an ally, or at least supplier of war material, to the Third Reich. Whilst the country's commitment to Hitler's anti-Bolshevik crusade had never been great, Hitler could not tolerate the Hungarians under the wily Admiral Horthy from sliding into formal neutrality or worse still alliance with the Allies or Soviets. For this reason the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, and in the autumn deposed Horthy and put the extreme Ferencs Szalasi, leader of the quasi-fascist Arrow Cross party, in place. The situation had partly been brought about by Romania's defection to the Soviet side and the massing of Soviets and Romanians on Hungarian soil - the Hungarians and Romanians were in fact bitter rivals and had old scores to settle with each other. At the same time the rabid race policy of the Nazis grasped its opportunity to destroy the Jews in Hungary as they had done in other countries, and while Eichmann was to flee the country before the Red Army, the Arrow Cross proved willing and eager to continue his deadly anti-Semitic policies. Hitler nevertheless wanted to hold Hungary for its resources if not for its combat potential and saw Budapest as a way of tying down Soviet forces. The attempts by the German forces outside to reach the beleaguered city were made not to relieve and extricate the garrison but to pour more men and weapons into it. In the event, all three efforts failed (the last narrowly) and the German commander failed to order a breakout in time, like his successor von Paulus at Stalingrad. Stalin himself was no less cynically committed to achieving the prize of taking the city as a means of enhancing Soviet prestige, particularly vis-à-vis the Western allies, and at one point ordered Malinovsky in the autumn to take the city within five days. When the stunned Malinovsky asked whether this meant five days to prepare the offensive, Stalin told him he meant five days to actually take the city itself, beginning on the morrow, and then put the phone down on him.

Thus the tragedy of Budapest was put into motion. Eager to please Stalin, Malinovsky launched a series of improvised and bloody offensives, expensive in lives and materiel, that nevertheless brought the Red Army to the gates. Yet the most successful attacks were carried out from the west by Soviet forces, causing the encirclement of Budapest by December. For his part Hitler had no intention in giving up the city nor of allowing the defenders, some of whom were first-class units, to escape. The Hungarians themselves, placed under the command of General Pfeffer-Wildbruch (a "political general" in the words of the German commander Balck), had little say in the defence of the city, and the Germans generally treated their brothers-in-arms with an attitude ranging from terseness to contempt. The city itself was divided into factions from the far-Right Arrow Cross to Hungarian communists who carried out attacks on Arrow Cross units and headquarters, while individual members of the Hungarian officer corps vacillated between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.

An interesting aspect of the story as related by Ungváry is the variable nature of the fighting units on both sides. Whilst some, like the Feldherrnhalle, 13 Panzer Division, Hungarian Assault Artillery battalions and Szent Laszlo paratroopers or Red Army Guards units, fought determinedly and skilfully, others, such as the SS 22nd Cavalry and regular Hungarian and Russian infantry units, were more of a mixed bag. In the case of the SS 22nd Cavalry this was more true than of most as this was one of the Waffen SS mixed-nationality units, including men from neutral European countries. The Russians likewise had some units made up of men rounded up from POW camps and sent straight back into the fight. A panoply of Hungarian volunteer units such as the University Assault Battalion and the Pannay (the latter one with unpleasant political overtones) fought hard, but the Arrow Cross also threw in units made up of gendarmes with the old Italian L3/3 tankettes that had been obsolete before the war started. Needless to say, such units suffered badly. Hungarian units that went over to the Soviets and fought alongside them also suffered heavy casualties. Initial Soviet attacks, after three years of painfully gained experience, seem to have harked back in terms of military primitiveness to the desperate days of 1941. The behaviour too of the fighting men was variable: some kept both discipline and honour intact, while others became a marauding rabble. All this time the Arrow Cross officials were going around the city terrorising the Jewish population and anyone else that was deemed an enemy.

After the city was taken, Pfeffer-Wildbruch and his staff did in fact try to break out of the ring, but in the event were too late, with the result that the surviving defenders who tried to escape suffered a tremendous slaughter once the panic-stricken Soviet front line had rallied. Many wounded and helpless men were also massacred by the victors. Ironically, Pfeffer-Wildbruch survived 10 years in Soviet captivity and returned to Germany in 1955, but the Hungarian commander Hindy who had little say in the running of the city was tried by a People's Court and executed. This inevitably raises the aftermath of the siege, which far from being a liberation turned out to be another form of bondage and degradation for many Hungarians, including communists. The erstwhile leader of Hungary, Janos Kadar, does not emerge well from his one appearance in the book. Looting and rape were distressingly common, although the Soviet leadership could take arbitrary measures (often execution) against their own soldiers who were caught. Imprisonment, press-ganging and deportation of the city's inhabitants was also commonplace. It took the city several months to return to a semblance of normality, only to enter the twilight of Stalin's final suspicious years.

One article (see Links below) has mildly criticised Dr Ungváry for essentially lashing out at both Left and Right, but if the facts (and they appear to be carefully researched) are as recorded here, then one can only agree with the writer that the biggest tragedy of all was the Hungarian soldier's, who regardless of which side he chose was to have little say in the running of his country or even his own life. In a sense one can agree with the sentiment that the ugliest war of the twentieth century only finally ended in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution.

A mild criticism could be made of some of the military terminology, which seems to have got confused in translation or elsewhere. Thus in one place the self-propelled tank destroyer "Hetzer" is referred to as an anti-tank gun, and in another as an assault gun: similarly, one part of the narrative speaks of the Germans sending in "armoured artillery trucks", which sounds like cannon-armed half-tracks of the SPW 251 or 250 series.


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