Dark Skies over Budapest

This book is written by Gellert Kovacs, a Hungarian who moved to Sweden in 1982 at the age of 9. Gellért is also the name of a hill with its citadel overlooking the Danube. The book, which I found in Ockelbo Library, is written in Swedish, published in 2013 by Carlssons Bokförlag (unfortunately, there is no evidence yet of an English translation appearing or even forthcoming). It covers the last year or so of the war from Summer 1944 to Winter 1945. The book opens with the following paragraph (my translation):

“The purpose of this book is to provide new information and new facts to the reader on a subject that has already been extensively written about Raoul Wallenberg and his time in Budapest. But it is also a book about a city where I was born and a country which was at the centre of European twentieth century history. What happened in Budapest between summer 1944 and winter 1945 was an appalling episode of European history. But it was also unique in being the only city of Nazi-controlled Europe in which jews survived in large numbers.” (Introduction p. 9).

The book shows how there were many different opposition groups to the Nazi. Miklós Horthy was given leeway in return for the participation of the elite 2nd Hungarian Army in the advance of the Axis armies east towards the Stalingrad front. The army was severely defeated in the Stalingrad Pocket along with the 6th Panzer Army under von Paulus where it lost over a two-thirds of its manpower of 200,000, leaving only 70,000 survivors. On 19 March 1944 German forces occupied Hungary.

Budapest is a beautiful city and is famous for its hot springs and spas. Joci took me to Budapest several times in my early teens. The city is in two parts: Buda is on the west bank of the Danube which flows through the city. Pest is the flatter Eastern part of the city where the Hungarian Parliament Building is on the left bank of the Danube overlooked by Buda. The Jewish Quarter in central Budapest was turned into a ghetto during the Nazi era and part of the compromises the Horthy regime made to preserve as much of the jewish heritage and populace as possible. The Fisherman’s Bastion is particularly impressive, and is also something of a celebration of a thousand years of Hungarian Crown history.

When I visited Budapest with Joci we stayed in a hotel and I had no memory of ever meeting anyone who was a relative or friend of Joci in Budapest. We were in Hungary first and foremost to visit my maternal relatives, and Joci was not from Hungary originally but from Slovakia. She did not have any relatives in Budapest. At the time she fled with Sani and her brother-in-law Willie Weisz, her sister Anci Weisz and their son George Weisz, Hungary was ruled by Horthy and had taken over Slovakia. As Hitler’s power strengthened after the Anschluss and the Horthy regime began to take over parts of Habsburg Hungary that had been lost after Trianon, all seemed well for Horthy. But it was not so, as ghetto-building and deportations of jews increased. Some ghetto-building was done but these were part of the Nazi strategy to mask the fact that “deportations” were in fact the death-trains to the concentration camps and gas chambers.

After Stalingrad where the Hungarian army alongside the Wehrmacht was all but destroyed, Hitler became increasingly dictatorial towards Horthy, ending with Slovakia becoming a satellite state under a Quisling chosen by Hitler – Jozsef Tiso, a catholic priest.

The complex political situation is well brought out by Gellert Kovacs. The most reliable soldiery available to Horthy were the Hungarian Gendarmes (see google images). These had their origin in the Austrian Empire as a sort of federal police. See Gendarmerie (Austria). Given Horthy’s aim to act as Regent for the old imperial succession this was in line with his strategy. Kovacs writes: “The Gendarmerie was one of the Horthy Regime’s most important supports. It was very disciplined and effective in combatting crime, but was also reputed for its brutality. It would play a key role during the 1944 deportations.”

There is much else of interest and that is new in this book. See, for example, the Wikipedia page on the Arrow Cross Party, the National Socialist Party that was the fore-bearer of its modern version (see the Spiegel online article “The monster at our door”). The discussion of Raoul Wallenberg also provides much new information from the archives that Gellert Kovacs has drawn on.

Rather than try to translate the entire book I propose to await the publication of an English translation even though this my be some time off. But Swedish readers would find this book a mine of new information, especially concerning Raoul Wallenberg, the special envoy to the Swedish Embassy in Budapest.

A minor side-comment: My command of Hungarian has declined drastically in the last decade of my retirement. This is especially true of the more flowery version of the Hungarian language that uses long words. But the Wallenberg film I saw on TV a year or so ago had Hungarians speaking a simple form of Hungarian that I have always called Kitchen Hungarian (konyha njelv), simple, with short words and unadorned. I was astonished and delighted to be able to understand every word.

Hungary does not have the elements of ordoliberalism that exist in Germany, Austria (Vienna) and Switzerland. Its economy is struggling to keep its value, and does so but with difficulty. Like so many ex-Warsaw Pact countries decades of postwar poverty led to the fall in the value of the forint:

“Transition to market economy in the early 1990s deteriorated the value of the forint, inflation peaked at 35% in 1991. Since 2001, inflation is single digit and the forint was declared fully convertible.[2] As a member of the European Union, the long-term aim of the Hungarian government is to replace the forint with the euro.[citation needed]”

“Transition to Market Economy” and “Single-digit” describes the fall in value that Gareth Dale has described in his book First the Transition then the Crash: Eastern Europe in the 2000s. Chapter 10 on Hungary by Adam Fabry is entitled “From Poster Boy of Neoliberal Transformation to Basket Case: Hungary and the Global Economic Crisis”. The whole has been made much worse by the rise of Jobbik, still trying to come to terms with the Treaty of Trianon. This is a tragedy that Hungary does not need.

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