Welcome to part 4 of fascism in Hungary: Having set the stage, charted the rise and fall of Gyula Gombos, looked at his “conservative” fascism – the “Szeged Idea” and last time the origin and ideology of Ferenc Szalasi and his more revolutionary Hungarism 3rd position, with this installment we will see how Hungarism was met with by the public and the establishment as well as the growing influence of Germany on Hungary as the continent moved towards the war.
Part 1 of the series can be found here: Setting the stage
Part 2 can be found here: Gyula Gömbös
Part 3: Ferenc Szálasi and Hungarism
When we last left off Szalasi had formed the Party of the Will of the Nation (Nemzet Akaratának Pártja, thus NAP) on March 4th 1935, putting his Hangarism to the public. Two things should be noted before we go on. First, people of the time loved their (secret) orders and levels of membership, thus there is a difference between the Hungarist movement and the NAP (and the parties that followed it). This was a tactical as well as contemporary methodology since restrictions on party affiliations for those employed by the state in various capacities were more common than today (and indeed as “far-right” censorship ramped up in Hungary all state officials were eventually banned from political membership). It could not be said however that the party was meant to be a presentable “whitewash” for the public; while the party was perhaps less aggressively poised, the movement itself did not call for extremely violent revolution, at least initially (Szalazi was adamant for a very long time that the people needed to choose Hungarism and his office would need to be legitimized by the regent), so there was no real obfuscation of the movements positions and goals under cover of a party apparatus. Secondly, there were several other national socialist movements/parties formed beyond the Szeged fascists even before Szalasi left the army, but, over time, they almost all came to converge under him and the upcoming arrow cross iteration of his party. For the sake of brevity I won’t delve into the details of either of the preceding matters as, while potentially interesting, they are not overly pertinent to the chain of events that unfolded and so we will restrain our focus to Szalasi and his exploits to serve as a yardstick for the trials and tribulations of truly revolutionary national socialism in Hungary through the period leading up to the war.
Over the next two years after its founding the NAP gathered significant public support, notably among workers and young professionals from the lower middle class (hit hard by the depression) in and around Budapest working class neighbourhoods. In another nod to the characterisation of Hungarism as “leftist fascism” Szalazi was less focused on gaining traction with farmers than other similar ideologies (he considered the peasantry too innately conservative and resigned to force issues), he also held the upper-class to be irreparably corrupt and in needing of a spiritual rebirth: via a cycling of new elites drawn from the working and peasant classes (“The worker and the peasant are the axis and the foundation of his movement” he would say). Student groups and young (mostly unemployed) intellectuals (older established thinkers and talkers stuck with the conservative or Szeged trends), who had become disillusioned with the Szeged’s, were also present in number as were a good number of young military men and civil servants. As you can see around a core proletariat Hungarism was attractive to all classes except, not unexpectedly, those well comfortable with the current social order. Ferenc was an impressive figure on the campaign, drawing crowds that would walk days, if needed, to hear him proselytise his dream of a highly industrialised peasant state; the party itself potentially boasted from 20,000 to upwards of 50,000 members by 1937
While Ferenc’s star was rising the prime ministership of the state had passed to one Kalman Daranyi after the death of Gombos in 1936. His appointment was Horthy’s (the regents) first attempt to swing the country back from the growing revolutionary energies of the “far-right” (something that became a continuing objective from now till his deposing): Daranyi was a constitutionalist and part of Istvan Bethlen’s legacy (the first prime minister after the countries restructuring as a constitutional monarchy under Horthy and a continual presence as a force behind conservative politics still decades after leaving office) but by not turning sharply against the policies that Gombos had left he successfully managed a coalition of conservatives, reactionaries and the “Gombos Orphans” that made up the parliament though a relatively smooth transition of power. As part of his mandate to establish a more “neutral” position for Hungary on the European stage Daranyi did make overtures to strengthen relationships with the west that had soured with Gombos’s focus on the Rome-Belin axis, these went largely ignored in London and Paris however but it did make the Germans take more interest in the street level nationalist groups that were forming (The nazi’s generally pursed a foreign policy of supporting ideologies if they were effectively “close enough” to natsoc [i.e the Szeged’s] over more pure revolutionary movements if the former presented stability among their close neighbours). The growing influence and agitations of the NAP were set to disturb the peace Daranyi was establishing, they had begun printing revolutionary newspapers in the spring of 37 that proclaimed that “they would take power. With the nation – for the nation! Endurance: Szalasi!” (Endurance [kitartás!] would eventually become the motto of the Arrow Cross), and so on April 16th of that year the party was declared illegal with Szalasi arrested the day before.
Szalasi was released after only ten days, pending appeal, which rather backfired on Daranyi as rumours that powerful figures had secured his freedom began to circulate and along with the peoples natural reaction to the persecution of such a prominent movement actually caused Szalasi’s popularity to soar! Since the movement was the considered “soul” of Hungarism whilst the party only the “body” Szalasi was hardly to be deterred by this setback and by October had established the Hungarian National Socialist Party (absorbing several smaller of the other national socialist organisations in the process); which was nevertheless quickly banned for essentially being the same party as the NAP in February 1938 and Szalasi was once again arrested (in fact he also arrested in the November between those dates for “seditious conspiracy” where Horthy had come to believe he was plotting to overthrow him due to a complicated set of circumstances and drew a suspended sentence). Released in April Szalasi was right back at it (kitartás!) with the National Socialist Hungarian Party – Movement Hungarista party which managed to last until February 1939.
Despite his actions against Szalasi a change was taking place with the politics of Daranyi, not only due to the surge of Hungarism but also because of the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938 (the Anschluss). With Germany now a direct neighbour and the Nazi’s ascendant Daranyi began to move “right” away from Horthy’s ideals, appointing Germanophile politicians to parliament and proposing Hungary’s first anti-jewish law that would limit their participation in professional sectors to 20% (Jewish defined in this instance as religious not racial). He also came under the influence of Bela Imredy who had been Gombos’s minister of finance and was still an important voice in economic matters. Imredy presented himself as something of a conservative but was actually of the Szeged persuasion and even convinced Daranyi to begin secret negotiations to “share the far-right” with Kalman Hubay (a lieutenant of Szalasi [since Szalasi was imprisoned at the time]) by granting the national socialists some parliamentary power in exchange for a toning down of the revolutionary rhetoric. Nothing much came of this as Horthy was unaware of these negotiations (public speaking out against the Hungarists in the same period) and when he found out about it (thanks to an informant from the Bethlanite camp) that, along with the explicitly Germanophile actions, was the end for Daranyi and in May 1938 Hungary once again had a new prime minister.
In the form of Bela Imredy! Who had kept his true allegiances well hidden and now took up control of the Szeged fascist remnants. He quickly had Daranyi’s jewish law passed and by December had even submitted a second one; Jewishness now being a matter of inheritance, university enrolment capped at their proportion of the population (6%) and complete exclusion from state positions [In conservative-fascist style this law almost exclusively effected the normal Jew on the street, leaving big capital untouched]. Holding power now, and of a mind to create an ultraconservative fascist-like state in the vein of Salazar’s Portugal, Imredy dispensed with ideas of alliance with the street movement and in July forged a leaflet campaign in Salazi’s name designed to infuriate Horthy with calls to outright rebellion, this landed Salazi back in jail facing a full 3 year sentence this time. Following visits with Mussolini and Hitler Imredy became more openly fascist, espousing: a totalitarian government, land and social reform, nationalisation of industry, state leisure organisation, corporatisation etc and by January 1939 had launched the black uniformed Hungarian Life Movement with the goal of bypassing the government in the unifying of the social strata of the nation. Unsurprisingly, this upset the conservatives, so much so that the Imredy government was vetoed in parliament, but, much in the style of Gombos, Imredy had used charismatic rhetoric to captured many of the people’s hearts; enough that protests in favour of him broke out. But Imredy had a secret, he himself had Jewish ancestry; evidence for this, gathered by a coalition of moderates and leftists, was presented to Imredy mid-February by Bethlan, causing him (after reportedly fainting first) to promptly resign his office (though he remained a political force as leader of the Szeged elements). And so Hungary, again, had a new Prime Minister, this time Pal Teleki; who had actually already held this position for a short time the 1920’s just prior to Bethlan.
Nearly a year in jail had done wonders for Hungarism as while Szalasi was a powerful speaker, he was rather detached from day-to-day pragmatism with his spiritual concerns and even something of a deradicalizing influence, making him somewhat of a better martyr than leader. In his absence practical and educated men had taken over the administration of the movement whilst the more radical proletarian element (who were more loyal to Szalasi as a personality than the movement as an ideology) where now less restrained in their agitations “We do the dirty work that Ferenc can’t”. This iteration of the Hungarianist party, which had had somewhere from 10-20 thousand members when Szalasi was last imprisoned, now had a staggering 200–300 thousand! Teleki, our new Prime Minster, very much part of the traditional conservative aristocratic set could not have this and the Hungarists were shut down once again on February 23rd 1939. But it was far too late to put the genie back in the bottle and Kalman Hubay, with financial backing flowing more readily from Germany now, reformed the party (finally bringing the iconography the movement had been using since its inception to symbolise the pure Magyar tribes into the name) as the Arrow Cross Party – Hungarist Movement on March 15, in time for the coming mid-May elections. The financial backing of the Nazi’s did come with some pressure to accept their imperialism instead of the pure Hungarist position of a conational pax Hungarica, which the leadership did somewhat acquiesce too; a short term gain at the expense of ideological purity and independence that cost them in the long run.
While the conservatives, now called the Party of Hungarian Life (having merged with the political aspect of Imredy’s Hungarian Life Movement thanks to German influence), had their largest victory to date with these elections the arrow cross shot to 2nd place, taking in 15.41% of the vote, cementing themselves as a legitimate political force (without the governments antisemitic concessions, successes in reclaiming some Hungarian territory through arbitration and repeated suppression of the party, it could well have been higher). Amusingly when the new parliament was first seated the arrow cross members refused to sit on the “right”, instead adamantly occupying the space for the “extreme left”. In response the government party played the “move-right” card in the face of this clear threat to its hegemony, Imredy’s second Jewish law was passed by the end of the month and over the next two years (as the war begun) moved closer and closer to Germany and, once again, fascists policies (Teleki even beginning to draw plans for a corporatist state [almost a rite of passage for late interwar Hungarian prime ministers it seems]).
Cruelly in what should have been the start of their eclipse of the traditional order the arrow cross almost immediately began to decline post-election. The public and many of the neophyte members (particularly those of the professional middle class) were “getting what they wanted” from the conservatives with the Jewish laws, pro German positions and talk again of social reform along with the natural pulling together to the strongest horse in times of conflict and an employment boom as the nation shifted into a war economy. Even though said laws were haphazardly enforced with ways around them (pretend ownership records of jewish businesses for example) being open secrets and social reform never really materialising to any great extent, enough people were happy simply with the appearance of something being done that even with the arrow cross parliamentarians and street level operatives loudly drawing attention to the failing of actual progress (and that perhaps over dependence of Germany as opposed to allyship was not such a good thing) didn’t halt the increasing somnolence of the people’s revolutionary drive (an attempt at a mass rally to “take over the streets of Budapest” was met with lacklustre attendance for example). Internally the divisions within the party also began to stress, the bourgeois higher ups started to soften as they became entrenched in the parliamentary apparatus which angered and further radicalised (plots to kidnap Horthy and demand Szalasi’s released were even planned and foiled) the proletariat element who saw this as betrayal to the establishment; eventually membership purges began, often on the charge of Marxism (though they did not play out anywhere as extreme as the Nazi equivalent). All this coupled with a general disillusionment of many among the party and supporters who had, naively, expected a quick and decisive take over, Szalasi’s release from prison and a reordering of society in short order saw the party and movement rapidly shaving support.
German backing even began to dry up as the stability of allies was important now more than ever and despite their pressure resulting in Szalasi’s early release from prison in September, he remained adamant in his opposition to their imperial goals; nor would he deem to work with Imredy who had German favour and was very much their instrument in the government against Teleki’s conservative tendencies. By October Imredy had even founded a new “far-right” opposition party under Szeged ideals (the Party of Hungarian Renewal) that in many ways was set as a foil against the arrow cross as much as the conservatives; the arrow cross would not work with the Nazi’s again till 1944. Preserving as always Szalasi set about putting his house in order, serval higher ups of arrow cross were removed while others who had had stayed more faithful to the ideals and been removed were now readmitted; while the diminishment continued (Imredy’s party managed to siphon off some of the bourgeois element that hadn’t even been expelled) Szalasi could still be a force and in October he successfully organised a strike of some 40,000 coal miners to which some sympathetic commanding generals refused to supress.
With Hungary entering the war proper events begin to move even faster which we will explore next time as the conservatives try to pull away from the failing axis, Germany occupies Hungary and Szalasi, briefly, becomes prime minister.
Cornelius, D, Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron, Fordham University Press, 2011.
Nagy-Talavera N, The Green Shirts and the Others: A History of Fascism in Hungary and Romania, The Center for Romain Studies, 2001.