Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to participate in this year’s “Day of Honor” events by some of the leaders of the Hungarian Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HVIM), or Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, which is a nationalist cultural and metapolitical organization. The Day of Honor refers to February 11, which was the date in 1945 when the surviving soldiers of the Hungarian Army and their German allies attempted to break out of the city at the end of the Battle of Budapest, and more generally to Hungary’s honoring of its commitment to its German ally in the war. HVIM is one of several groups which organizes and supervises the events each year, and sixty-four counties refers not just to the counties which currently make up Hungary, but also to those which made up what is known as “Greater Hungary” prior to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, which deprived Hungary of seventy percent of its territory as punishment for its role as one of the Central Powers in the First World War. To this day, millions of ethnic Hungarians are still living in these areas, and HVIM seeks to represent all of them.
First, a bit of background. The Battle of Budapest is not as well-known as the other great city battles of the Second World War, such as Stalingrad or Berlin, which is rather tragic since it was no less epic or destructive. But its full significance cannot be understood without knowing how it came about. Hungary, which for most of the war was ruled by Admiral Miklós Horthy, had joined the Axis in 1939 (although Horthy himself was not a fascist, and in fact opposed Hungary’s own National Socialist party, the Arrow Cross), and from 1941 was active participating in the fight against the Soviet Union. Indeed, one of Budapest’s main squares, today known as the Oktogon, was named Benito Mussolini Square during the Horthy period, and today’s Kodály Circus, named after the composer, was called Adolf Hitler Square.
In early 1944, realizing that the war was lost, Horthy began secret negotiations in an attempt to secure a separate peace with the Allies. The Germans soon detected this, and on March 19 they launched Operation Margarethe, occupying key points around the country and effectively rendering Hungary a German vassal state. Nevertheless, Horthy persisted in his efforts, and by October 15, when their forces had already penetrated deep into Hungary, the Soviets accepted an armistice in which Hungary would surrender in exchange for retaining its national autonomy. The Germans had expected this move and immediately took Horthy and his son as prisoners, and informed Horthy that his son would be executed unless he immediately resigned and named Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, as his successor. Horthy reluctantly agreed, although the change in government was largely symbolic, since the Red Army was already well on its way toward Budapest.
Even among Hungarian nationalists today, the Battle of Budapest remains a controversial point of contention, with some believing that Horthy’s position was the right one, and that Szálasi’s brief reign brought unnecessary destruction and suffering to the country, and Budapest in particular. Horthy remains a very popular figure among Rightists, and in recent years Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party has been very active in building monuments to Horthy around the country in an effort to rehabilitate his legacy. Szálasi, on the other hand, who fled the city before the battle even began, is beloved by few, although it is nevertheless the case that even he had requested the Germans not to defend the Hungarian capital, knowing that it would bring tremendous death and destruction to it. The Germans, however, who were desperate to delay the invasion of their own home territory for as long as possible, were determined to use the city as a means of holding up the Red Army. Others, however, see the battle as Hungary fulfilling its obligations to Germany as a member of the Axis alliance, and as a heroic, if ultimately futile, attempt to halt the occupation of all of Europe by the Soviet Union.
The Soviets began encircling the city on October 29, and had already invaded Budapest’s suburbs by November 7. They, along with the forces of their new-found Romanian ally, began their offensive against the city proper on December 19, where they were faced by a combination of the Hungarian Army and police, Arrow Cross militia, German Wehrmacht, and Waffen-SS forces which were a mixture of German, Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe), Croatian, and Ukrainian units. At the outset, Stalin’s generals informed him that they would take the city within three days; the battle ended up lasting nearly two months, with intensive fighting street by street and building by building. The Soviet forces and their Romanian allies suffered an estimated 55,000 dead in the fighting; of the Axis forces, 40,000 are believed to have been killed, as well as 38,000 civilians.
As the Germans and their allies were gradually pressed back, they were eventually isolated in Buda Castle (which the Germans had been using as their headquarters) and the surrounding area, and by February 11, their supply lines having been cut, they were nearly out of food and ammunition. Hitler ordered the defenders to fight to the last man, but nevertheless, beginning that night, an estimated 44,000 soldiers began to break out in three groups, in an effort to make it to the new Axis front lines. The effort was largely futile, however – most of the escapees were soon killed or captured, and only 800 actually made it to the front lines. (Those who would like an in-depth account of the battle should refer to Battle for Budapest: 100 Days in World War II by Krisztián Ungváry.)
For those who live in Budapest, the scars of the battle are a constant reminder of what happened here. The outer facades of many buildings still bear bullet holes and shrapnel marks (although granted, one can never be certain which are from the Battle of Budapest and which are from the 1956 uprising against the Soviets, which also caused extensive damage). Hungarians are extremely aware of their long history and identity, and the sense of it hangs heavy in the air here, but the Battle of Budapest especially captures my imagination and sense of awe, to think that it happened in the very streets that I walk in every day. This is not only because of my interest in Hungary and the Second World War, but also because there were many Transylvania Saxons in the Waffen-SS units that fought in Budapest, and being of Transylvania Saxon descent myself, I view it as part of my own inheritance, however distant.
So when I was invited to participate in the Day of Honor commemorations by some of the members of HVIM, I eagerly accepted. HVIM has been organizing these annually for years now. The first event I attended was a march in honor of the soldiers that took place a week before the main event. It is known as the “tour,” or the “short march,” since participants visit several sites related to the battle, and also, it’s only twelve kilometers long. More ambitious people do the long march on February 11, which involves a walk of nearly sixty kilometers and lasts all through the night and into the next morning. Twelve kilometers didn’t sound particularly onerous, however.
I wasn’t given much of an idea of what to expect, except that I was told to wear good boots (which wasn’t really enough, as I was soon to discover) and to bring water and something to eat. I showed up at the rendezvous point in the morning to find a large group had gathered, some of whom were wearing outdoor gear, but most wore military garb of Hungarian or modern German origin. We took a series of trams and buses to the outer edge of Buda, where we met up with even more people at an old Lutheran church that had once served a German-Hungarian community that had been expulsed by the Soviets, along with most of the other Volksdeutsche of Eastern Europe (many of which were communities that had been in existence for centuries), in 1945. By the time everyone had arrived, I would estimate that there were at least two hundred people there, possibly more. Most were young men, of course, but as is usual at Hungarian nationalist events, there were a fair number of fair young women as well (for those with no experience of them, Hungarian women are truly the jewels of European beauty). Many of those present were members of nationalist organizations, but in talking to some I realized that many were ordinary citizens who were merely there to honor the fallen, rather than out of obligation. Even more surprising to me was that there were more than a few older people, both men and women, who appeared to be at least in their sixties.
After a few short speeches to open the event, we soon marched en masse, flags and banners of the participating organizations out in front, down a muddy dirt road, following the route that one of the three groups of soldiers had taken during the breakout. The ground was quite sodden and full of puddles, but I had my trusty Corcoran boots on, and I thought to myself, “This won’t be too strenuous.” But before long, we left the road and crossed a field, into an area of Budapest that even some of the lifelong residents of the city who were with us said they had never been into before. And this is where things started to get challenging.
For those who don’t know Budapest’s geography, the Pest side is quite flat, but the Buda side, where we were, is extremely hilly. For some reason I had imagined that we’d be walking on level ground all day, but when we left the road I realized, “Of course people trying to evade an army of men hunting for them wouldn’t stick to the roads.” And right off the bat, we had to climb some very steep hills to get into the forests we were heading into. While this would have been only moderately challenging in warm weather, this was early February. This winter has been a particularly cold and snowy one by Budapest standards; to make matters worse, things had begun to warm up a bit during the preceding couple of days. What this meant is that the hills we had to go up and down all day were covered in ice, slick semi-melted snow, and/or mud – which made them absolutely treacherous. Even when we were on level ground, one could never be entirely confident of one’s footing under those conditions.
I struggled up the first couple of hills we climbed, but I soon realized my Corcorans alone weren’t going to do the trick. I then realized why many of the people had brought ski rods with them, which made climbing and descending without falling on one’s ass and possibly sliding back down to the bottom much easier. After a few humiliating falls of my own, when I had to be rescued by kindly passersby who offered me their hands, one of the marchers took pity on me and loaned me one of his rods to use for the rest of the day. Without it, I don’t think I would have been able to make it to the end!
Up and down hills, and through forests we went. Sometimes there were dirt paths to follow, and sometimes not even those, and we would have to cross streams or struggle through ice-and-snow covered undergrowth, clutching on to tree branches for support. One of the HVIM men told me that these conditions were the same as what the soldiers actually experienced in 1945 – if so, I’m sure it was only their instinct for survival that kept them going. And if I found it difficult, as one of the Hungarians reminded me with a grin after a complaint from me, the soldiers were being pursued and shot at the entire time they were on the run. I’m proud to report that, although on a number of occasions throughout the day we passed places where people could catch rides back to the city, very few people left the group until the end. The vast majority of those who started with us were still there when we finished.
Occasionally, we would come to piles of rocks, which we were informed was the final resting place of German and Hungarian soldiers, where some of the participants would leave lit candles as memorials, and the group would hold a moment of silence before each, and a speaker would explain the known circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths. In some cases, the Russians had been able to predict the escapees’ movements, such as those of a group that travelled down a drain pipe from Buda Castle, and were able to lay ambushes for them. The graves are quite simple affairs, usually with a cross and some sort of simple plaque added by Jobbik or another organization, but there are quite a lot of them dotting the entire area. Of the battle itself, there was not much to be seen, although in a few places we came to trenches that had been dug out for for anti-aircraft guns on rails, or for the soldiers and officers who were tasked with defending them. There was no sign of man-made structures apart from a couple of concrete bunkers that had been used to store ammunition for the anti-aircraft guns.
At one point we came to an old farmhouse, where we were told a group of German soldiers had ended up after fleeing through the forest. Two of them had decided to risk venturing into a nearby village to look for food, where they were captured by Russian soldiers who executed them by bayoneting them through their eyeballs. The others made a last stand at the house, although none survived.
While we were told all too many horrifying stories concerning the fate of many of these soldiers at the hands of the Soviets, it should be said that the organizers made it very clear that they were not holding the event in an attempt to stoke hostile feelings toward the Russians, or to glorify the Third Reich, which had led to the deaths of so many in Hungary. Rather, they and many of those whom I talked to rather viewed it as a way of honoring those who had fought bravely, and in many cases sacrificed everything, to defend both Hungary and Europe, as well as celebrating a part of their heritage. “Now you’ve seen something of our history,” one of my new Hungarian friends told me.
Amidst all the tales of bloodshed, there was one amusing exception at one of our stops, concerning a group of six Russian soldiers who, never having seen the West before, snuck into the city before the main attack and found themselves at a tram stop. They got on the tram, but no one saw them as unusual in their uniforms or carrying weapons, as there was a lot of military activity in Budapest at the time. The soldiers took a seat and enjoyed the ride until a uniformed conductor came into the car to check tickets. At first they thought he was a Hungarian soldier, and they wanted to shoot him, but one of them realized he was a conductor and bid them to hold their fire. When the conductor came to them to ask for their tickets, as they didn’t speak Hungarian, they panicked and jumped out of the car, fleeing back into the forest.
The organizers had thought that we would finish while it was still daylight, but the conditions had slowed us down, so that for the last few hours we were forced to walk in darkness, which added to the treacherousness of the situation. Fortunately, however, some people had brought flashlights, so somehow, we made it all the way to the end. At the last gravesite, there was a closing speech, and then everyone sang the Hungarian national anthem, after which everyone present was given a certificate to mark their participation, and then we were offered a ride back to the tram station.
The entire march had taken ten hours. I must admit to being relieved when it was over, as I was completely exhausted, but I also felt a sense of pride in those who had done it with me as well as a bond that we shared, having all come together voluntarily, giving up a Saturday of relaxation to go hiking in the cold to honor the fallen heroes. My arms and legs were sore for days afterwards, but it was a satisfying pain, knowing that my comfort had been a sacrificial offering. And as I said to one of my new friends during the march, I am quite sure that if a similar event were to be held in the United States to commemorate some episode of American history, many wouldn’t know about it, few would bother to show up at all, and even fewer would be willing to spend five minutes in such conditions, let alone an entire day. Once again, as I have felt on numerous other occasions, I was filled with a sense of awe at the strength of the Hungarian identity and the willingness of ordinary Hungarians to go to such lengths to celebrate their historical legacy. I sincerely wish that American nationalists, who often have little real-life experience of genuine national pride in a communal way, could experience such an event, to remind them of what it is that we are fighting for. Hunched behind computer screens, it’s all too easy for our struggle to become something entirely abstract. For the Hungarians, it is something visceral that they make manifest through their actions.
A week later, on February 11 itself, there was another march through the streets near Buda Castle, ending at the statue to the fallen soldiers of the First World War in Népliget Park (photo above), which is seen as honoring the Hungarian dead of all wars. A ceremony and a laying of wreaths followed. From there, many of the participants proceeded on to Buda Castle, from where they would leave for the long march that I mentioned before. I refrained this time – one march had been enough for me for this year – but maybe next year! But again, I was amazed at the sheer number of people who were participating, as well as the fact that they came from all walks of life, as with the march that I had been in. There were a few protesters there, making noise and generally being a nuisance, playing Hungarian covers of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs (seriously), but few bothered to even take notice of them and it had no effect whatsoever on the day’s proceedings. (A lot of police were in the area, just to make sure.) The Hungarian spirit was on the march, and the silly antics of a handful of pathetic, deracinated liberals with no identity other than hollow ideals were no match for it.
Whatever one thinks of the politics surrounding it, the Battle of Budapest was a moment when many different European peoples – Hungarians, Germans, Croatians, Ukrainians, and others – united to defend their lands from a common foe in Soviet Communism. This is a spirit that needs to be resurrected in Europe today, and the organizers of the Day of Honor should be respected for doing something to try to revive it, by reminding us of the sacrifices of those with similar goals who came before us.
In closing, I’ll quote a passage from the memoir Goodbye Transylvania by the Transylvania Saxon author Sigmund Heinz Landau, who had served as a Waffen-SS soldier and fought in the Battle of Budapest until his unit was pulled out:
On 28 February 1945, we were informed the fighting in Budapest had ceased. I was very proud of the three otherwise unknown SS divisions which fought so gallantly, one could say to the last man, as they were 100 percent Volksdeutsche, tacitly classed as second-class Germans. This discrimination was understandable as of all the Eastern European ethnic Germans, the Transylvania Saxons were the only ones who were in every respect comparable with the Reichsdeutsche. The others had no German education, no Hitler Youth Organization of their own and therefore no pre-military training of any sort, which made their training more difficult and lengthy, and to top it all, many of them spoke very little or no German. In Budapest these poor lost, misguided boys fought on their own ground. Many of them were natives of the Hungarian capital, and there they showed us they knew how to fight when they knew what the hell they were fighting for.