Welcome to part 4 of fascism in Hungary: Having set the stage, charted the rise and fall of Gyula Gömbös and his conservative fascism – the “Szeged Idea” and last time explored the origin and ideology of Ferenc Szálasi and his more revolutionary Hungarism 3rd position, with this instalment we will see how Hungarism was met with by the public and the establishment as well as the effects of the growing influence of Germany on Hungary as the continent moved towards the second world war.
Part 1 of the series can be found here: Setting the stage
Part 2 can be found here: Gyula Gömbös and Szeged Fascism
Part 3: Ferenc Szálasi and Hungarism
When we last left off Szálasi had formed the Party of the Will of the Nation (Nemzet Akaratának Pártja, thus NAP) on March 4th, 1935, putting his Hungarism 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 slightly 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 legitimised by the regent), so there was no attempt to obfuscate 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 Szálasi 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 our focus will be restrained to Szálasi and his political exploits to serve as a yardstick for the trials and tribulations of truly revolutionary fascism in Hungary as a whole.
Over the next two years after its founding the NAP gathered significant public support, most notably among workers and young professionals from the lower middle class (hit hard by the depression) in and around Budapest working class neighbourhoods. In a further nod to the characterisation of Hungarism as “leftist fascism” Szálasi 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 abundance 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 most comfortable with the current social order. Ferenc was an impressive figure on the campaign, drawing crowds that would walk days to hear him proselytise his dream of a highly industrialised peasant state; the party itself 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 Kálmán Darányi after the death of Gömbös in 1936. His appointment was Horthy’s (the regents) first major attempt to swing the country back from the growing revolutionary energies of the far-right after the failure at absorption that he had wanted Gömbös’s government to be. Darányi was a constitutionalist and part of István Bethlen’s (the first prime minister after the countries restructuring as a constitutional monarchy under Horthy and a continual presence as a force behind conservative politics) legacy but by not immediately turning sharply against the policies that Gömbös had left behind he successfully managed a coalition of conservatives, reactionaries and the “Gömbös 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 Darányi made overtures with the west to strengthen the relationships that had soured with Gömbös’s focus on the Rome-Belin axis. These went largely ignored in London and Paris though, but it did make the Germans take more interest in the street level nationalist groups that were forming in their potential ally (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). Since the growing influence and agitations of the NAP were set to disturb the peace Darányi was establishing, they had begun printing revolutionary newspapers in the spring of ‘37 proclaiming that “they would take power. With the nation – for the nation! Endurance: Szálasi!” (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 Szálasi arrested the day before.
Szálasi was released after only ten days, pending appeal, which spectacularly backfired on Darányi 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 caused Szálasi’s popularity to soar! Since the movement was the considered “soul” of Hungarism whilst the party only the “body” Szálasi was hardly to be deterred by this setback and by October he had established the Hungarian National Socialist Party (absorbing several of the other smaller national socialist organisations in the process); which was nevertheless quickly banned for essentially being the same party as the NAP in February 1938 and Szálasi 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 for which he drew a suspended sentence). Released in April Szálasi was right back at it (kitartás!) with the National Socialist Hungarian Party – Movement Hungarista, which managed to last until February 1939.
Despite his actions against Szálasi a change was taking place with the politics of Darányi, 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, Darányi began to move “right” away from Horthy’s ideals, appointing Germanophile politicians to parliament and proposing Hungary’s first anti-jewish law, which would limit their participation in professional sectors to 20% (jewishness defined in this instance as religious not racial). He also came under the influence of Béla Imrédy who had been Gömbös’s minister of finance and was still an important voice in economic matters. Imrédy presented himself as something of a conservative but was actually of the Szeged persuasion and even convinced Darányi to begin secret negotiations to “share the far-right” with Kálmán Hubay (a lieutenant of Szálasi [since Szálasi was imprisoned at the time]) by granting the revolutionaries some parliamentary power in exchange for a toning down of the revolutionary rhetoric (a similar tactic used by conservatives on the Szeged Fascists years before during the “white terror”). Nothing much came of this as Horthy was unaware of these negotiations (publicly speaking out against the Hungarists in the same period) and when he found out about them (thanks to an informant from the Bethlanite camp) that, along with the explicitly Germanophile actions, was the end for Darányi and in May 1938 Hungary once again had a new prime minister.
In the form of Béla Imrédy! Who had kept his true allegiances and part in Darányi’s turn well-hidden and now took up full control of the Szeged Fascist remnants. He quickly had the first 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, Imrédy dispensed with ideas of alliance with the street movement and in July forged a leaflet campaign in Szálasi’s name designed to infuriate Horthy with calls to outright rebellion, this landed Szálasi back in jail facing a full 3 year sentence this time. Following visits with Mussolini and Hitler Imrédy 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 Imrédy government was vetoed in parliament, but, much in the style of Gömbös, Imrédy had used charismatic rhetoric to captured many of the people’s hearts, enough that protests in favour of him broke out. Unfortunately for him though Imrédy had a secret, he himself had some jewish ancestry and evidence for this, gathered by a coalition of moderates and leftists, was presented to him in his office mid-February by Bethlan, causing him (after reportedly fainting first) to promptly resign the prime-ministership (though he remained a political force as leader of the Szeged elements). And so, on February 16th, 1939, Hungary, once again, had a new Prime Minister. This time Pál Teleki who had actually already held this position for a short time the 1920’s just prior to Bethlan.
In the meantime on the streets, it’s leader being nearly a year in jail had done wonders for Hungarism as while Szálasi was a powerful speaker he was rather detached from day-to-day pragmatism with his spiritual focus and was 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 Szálasi 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 Hungarist party, which had had somewhere from 10-20 thousand members when Szálasi 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 Kálmán Hubay, with financial backing flowing more readily from Germany now, quickly reformed the party (finally bringing the iconography of the Magyar tribes the movement had been using since its inception into the organisations 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 pressure to accept their imperialism instead of the pure Hungarist position of a connational 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 in the new elections the Arrow Cross shot to 2nd place, taking in 15.41% of the vote and cementing themselves as a legitimate political force (without the governments antisemitic legal 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 this upset the government party played the move-right card again; Imrédy’s second jewish law was passed by the end of the month and over the next two years (as the war begun) the conservatives moved closer and closer to Germany and, once again, fascist policies (Teleki even beginning to draw plans for a corporatist state, something of a rite of passage for late interwar Hungarian prime ministers at this stage 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. There is also a natural tendency for nations to pull together behind the strongest horse in times of conflict that along with an employment boom as the country shifted into a war economy moved people away from radicalism back towards the establishment. Even though the laws were only haphazardly enforced with ways around them (falsified ownership records of jewish businesses for example) being open secrets and the promised social reform never 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 on Germany as opposed to allyship was not such a good thing) there was an 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, divisions within the party also began to stress. The bourgeois higher-ups started to soften as they became entrenched in the parliamentary apparatus, angering and further radicalising (plots to kidnap Horthy and demand Szálasi’s released were even planned and foiled) the proletariat element who saw this as betrayal to the old order. Eventually membership purges of the lower orders began, often on the charge of Marxism, though they did not play out anywhere as extreme as the Nazi’s equivalent. All this was coupled with a general disillusionment of many among the party and supporters who had, naively, expected a quick and decisive take over, Szálasis release from prison and then the reordering of society all in short order.
German backing for the Hungarists even began to dry up as the stability of allies was important now more than ever and despite their influence resulting in Szálasi’s early release from prison in September he remained adamant in his opposition to their imperial goals. Nor would he deem to work with Imrédy who had German favour and was very much their instrument in the government. By October Imrédy had even founded a new “far-right” opposition party under Szeged ideals (the Party of Hungarian Renewal) that in many ways was designed as a foil to the Arrow Cross as much as the conservatives; the Arrow Cross would not work with the Nazi’s again till 1944. Persevering as always, Szálasi set about putting his house in order, several 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 party’s diminishment continued (Imredy’s party managed to siphon off some of the bourgeois element that hadn’t even been expelled), Szálasi could still command a force and in October he successfully organised a strike of some 40,000 coal miners which sympathetic generals refused to supress.
With Hungary entering the war proper events begin to move even faster. Next time, in the final instalment, we will explore how the conservatives try to pull away from the failing axis, Germany occupies Hungary and Szálasi, 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.