The Hungarian Romanian War & The Downfall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic I THE GREAT WAR 1919

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code greatwar to get 20% off your first order. And now, on to the show. It’s November 1919, and the Romanian army
is pulling out of Budapest under Allied pressure. The Hungarian Soviet Republic is no more,
but who will govern Hungary now? Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to The
Great War. By late 1919, Central Europe was in a state
of chaos, centered largely on the question of what would become of Hungary. The country had seen a Bolshevik revolution
create the Hungarian Soviet Republic in March, and conflict over borders led to fighting
with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania in April. The Allies, especially the French, managed
to put a stop to the violence, but there was no easy solution in sight. By early May, foreign troops were still within
Hungary’s disputed frontiers , and Bolshevik leader Bela Kun’s fragile alliance of committed
Reds and reluctant nationalists was on the edge . Next door to the east, Romania was
increasingly nervous about being caught between Bolshevik Russia and Soviet Hungary. Bucharest pushed the patience of the Big Four
to the limit with its desire for a military line on the Tisza river, beyond the agreed
demarcation line. No one was satisfied with the situation, and
it wouldn’t be long before the tension boiled over again. Although the Romanian advance stopped at the
Tisza on May 1, the leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic still feared another combined
assault from three sides, just like in April. So they decided to shift the balance in their
favour by taking the initiative. They weighed their options carefully, and
decided against attacking the strong Romanian positions on the Tisza. They couldn’t really attack the Yugoslavs
in the south because of the French troops there, so there really was only one possibility
for success: to the north, against Czechoslovakia – the weakest opponent. (Hetes 56). But the Hungarians were divided about where
to strike the Czechs. Aurel Stromfeld, the Chief of the General
Staff, wanted to attack in the northwest, towards Nitra. He argued this would secure Budapest and deal
the Czechoslovak forces a crippling blow. But the Commander in Chief, Vilmos Boehm,
and most of the other leadership favoured a push to the northeast, towards Kassa, or
Kosice. This would split the Czechoslovak and Romanian
forces apart and allow for a further offensive against the Romanians from the area around
Csap. Stromfeld’s order of the day on May 26 read:
“For political and economic reasons, Headquarters decided to cut through the inner flank of
the Czech-Romanian forces, first to defeat the Czechs and, after the Tisza crossing,
to attack the Romanians.” (Hetes 58)
Just as important, the Hungarian Reds hoped they could gain prestige by linking up with
the Russian Bolsheviks in Ukraine, and secure the future of the revolution in Central Europe. They didn’t know at the time that the changing
fronts of the civil war in Russia would make this impossible. (Hetes 57-58). On May 30 the offensive began, between the
town of Lucenec and the Tisza river . The weak Czech units facing the Red Army were
led by French and Italian officers, who were not able to cooperate effectively (BG109). The Czechoslovaks fell back in disarray, and
by June 5, the Hungarians were near Kosice – but just a few days later the attack was
called off. You see despite the military success, the
political situation had forced Kun’s hand. The Big Four in Paris issued another ultimatum
to the belligerent armies in June, ordering them to return to the demarcation lines agreed
to previously. This was not the first such ultimatum – both
sides had ignored several Allied demands in the past – but this time, Kun understood
that the Romanians would also have to withdraw east of the Tisza, and he was prepared to
trade his gains in the north for territory in the east (Nouzille 81), as the Russian
Bolsheviks had done in Brest Litovsk back in 1918. But Kun also had other problems on his hands. He supported the creation of a Slovak Socialist
Republic in mid-June, but this proved to be quite controversial. His objective was to spread the revolution
and play for time, but many of his officers and troops were more interested in restoring
these lands to Hungary than creating a new revolutionary republic. Morale dropped, and Boehm resigned. As if that weren’t enough, revolts against
Soviet rule had to be put down in Budapes t and Sopron in early June and a Hungarian
supported Bolshevik coup attempt in Vienna failed. On June 28, Kun agreed to give up the lands
he had won, and an armistice was signed July 6. Peter Agoston signed the document for the
Hungarian Soviet Republic and noted in his diary: “I signed the armistice agreement[…]because
we want to support the Austrians, in order to establish a soviet system there. It seems [French General Mittelhauser] has
no inkling that the Red Army is now very weak and for this reason we surrendered those extensive
territories in Upper Hungary.” (Glosztony 69)
But the Romanians did not budge from their position on the Tisza, since they had not
been consulted by the Big Four about withdrawing (Torrey 310). Kun protested to the French, but they refused
to pressure their ally. (Nouzille 81) The Romanians had defied French
wishes before, and the country was a lynchpin in the French policy of containing Bolshevik
Russia. Hungary was in an uproar, and the Communist
government came under intense pressure – their foreign policy had failed, and their support
within Hungary was crumbling. A desperate move was in the cards. But before we jump into what comes next, let’s
focus on diplomacy in Paris, and what the Allies thought of the changing situation. In May and June, the Big Four in Paris struggled
to agree on a policy in Central Europe. It didn’t help that in the late spring,
most of their attention was still on the coming treaty with Germany. One British journalist remarked after a meeting
with David Lloyd George and General Wilson: “It was quite obvious that the Big Four
had hardly given the countries east of Germany a thought, being far too occupied with the
principal offender to bother about lesser minions.” (Macmillan 274-275)
Now the Big Four did want to stop the fighting so the border questions could be ironed out
– but they also feared what might happen if the Hungarian and Russian Reds established
contact and spread the revolution. They grew frustrated, as all the regional
players had ignored several requests to stop fighting. David Lloyd George at one point simply stated:
“They are all little brigand peoples who only want to steal territories.” (Macmillan 274). But the Entente’s ability to impose their
will, despite the French Army of the Danube, was limited. There was simply no desire in the Allied publics
for another war, especially far from home, as the US military representative in Budapest
observed: “If the three Great Powers had been able to keep armies and could have sent
them immediately to any place where trouble was brewing, it would have been different,
but the Supreme Council’s prestige went aglimmering when a steady stream of ultimata
had no effect whatever upon that miserable little nation of Rumania” (Macmillan 276). Clemenceau said he would only support all-out
military intervention if the US and UK joined, but neither was willing. An exasperated Wilson asked Lloyd George and
Clemenceau: “Do we have a way of stopping the movement of the Rumanians?” (Macmillan 274)
To make things more complicated, Allied politicians and military leaders didn’t always agree. Clemenceau was supportive of Romania but cautious,
since Romania had, after all, concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers in
1918 before re-entering the war on November 10 . Generals Franchet D’Esperey and Berthelot,
on the other hand, urged a Romanian attack to wipe out the Soviet Republic in Hungary
and firmly establish an anti-Bolshevik cordon sanitaire. General Berthelot even referred to Romania
as “the best French colony in the world.” (Torrey 304), though he was rebuked by Clemenceau
for his overly-aggressive advice. Romania also had some difficult choices to
make that summer – should they finish off Hungary or not? Since their victory in April, they had renewed
confidence in their military strength, and they were also worried about the Bolshevik
threat from Russia in the east, since Lenin was demanding that they give up Bessarabia
and Bukovina (Torrey 309). But there was an advantage to letting the
weak and isolated Hungarian Soviet Republic survive, since it had no support from the
Entente. The King agreed to withdraw Romanian troops
if the Allies promised to intervene in case of a future Hungarian attack against Romani
a, but such a guarantee was not provided. (Torrey 310). Prime Minister Bratianu defended his position
to the Big Four: “I fear that you are not perfectly informed about the role of the Rumanian
army and the Hungarian provocations.” (Macmillan 274) So the fighting in April had not solved anything,
and the diplomats had not made any progress either. Now the Romanians were split on whether to
attack again, and the Hungarian Bolsheviks were on the verge of collapse. HSR ATTACK EAST & DEFEAT
You see, by the middle of July, Kun was in a dilemma. He had sacrificed the territories he had won,
but had gotten nothing in return. His regime was on very shaky ground, and his
attempts to spread the revolution in Slovakia and Austria, and to get support from Russia,
had failed. He decided there was only one option left:
one last desperate attack against the Romanians. On July 12, the Hungarian Soviet Republic
ordered universal conscription and shifted troops to the east, to form the Army of the
Tisza. The attack would coincide with a planned European
general strike against the intervention in Hungary on July 21 (Nouzille 82). But the Hungarians faced very long odds. The Red Army’s 30,000 troops and 300 guns
were outmatched by the Romanian army’s 84,000 men, 12,000 cavalry and 400 guns (Glosztony
78). Morale, discipline and organization in the
Red Army was now quite poor, and several units had to be disbanded by the new commander,
Jeno Landler. Some others simply refused to move up to the
front. To make matters worse for the Hungarians,
an Italian officer in Budapest had been given the plans for the offensive, so the Romanians
knew it was coming. The Hungarian Red Army attacked on July 20th. At first, some progress was made, and Hungarian
units crossed the river and advanced up to 60km. But the Romanians brought up their reserves,
and struck back on July 24. By the 30t h, the Romanian army under General
Mardarescu was crossing the Tisza, and the King and Queen even came to watch. By this stage, the Hungarian Red Army had
collapsed, and resistance to the Romanian advance was slight. Kun rushed to the front to rally his troops,
but the soldiers simply shouted: “We have already fought enough! Fight yourselves, comrades!” (Glosztony 73) Staff officer Julier noted
in his diary: ““The troops did not want to fight anymore at any price!” (Glosztony 73). On August 1, Bela Kun and the rest of the
governing council of the Hungarian Soviet Republic resigned. Kun addressed his fellow communists: “I
no longer have a voice, I have only the belief that the proletariat that left not me, its
leader, in the lurch, but left itself in the lurch, is still a proletariat that is not
at fault, because it was not possible to make out of capitalism, out of this squalid, this
loathsome capitalism, anything else than that squalid and loathsome system that there was
in this country[…]the dictatorship of the proletariat has collapsed in Hungary.” (Glosztony 74) Realizing all was lost, he
fled to Austria. The Social Democrat Gyula Peidl formed a new
government, but events were out of his control, and the local councils and Red Army units
simply disbanded. On August 4th, Romanian troops marched into
Budapest without a shot being fired. Premier Bratianu was jubilant: “[The victory]
refreshed my soul…these seven days have been the best in my political life.” (Torrey 312)
SEGUE So after four months, the Hungarian Soviet
Republic was no more, and Romanian troops occupied most of the country. Let’s take a moment to look at what went
wrong for the Bolsheviks in Hungary. First off, Soviet Hungary was completely isolated. The dream of joining up with Bolshevik Russia
never materialized, and attempts to spread the revolution locally, in Austria and Czechoslovakia
failed miserably. Alone, Hungary had no chance in a war against
its neighbours, who enjoyed Entente support – especially when the desperate Red Army
attacks had no clear and achievable military goals (Glosztony 77). Internally, support was lacking as well. Inflation, corruption, and the Red Terror
all contributed to chaos and suffering in the country. The regime alienated nearly all sectors of
society: Catholics because of its atheism, business owners because of its nationalization
policy, the aristocracy because of its land policy, the officer class because of its internationalism,
and moderate social democrats and liberals because of its opposition to democracy. Perhaps most importantly, it also alienated
the peasants, the largest group in Hungarian society, who did not want to sell their land
to the state and resisted fiercely. Even amongst the Budapest workers, the core
of Kun’s supporters, support quickly ebbed away. A Red Commissar in western Hungary reported
on the hopeless situation in May: “In [this] region, many villages are in revolt, and to
re-establish order real battles must be waged[…]Where peasants cannot rebel openly, they tolerate
our rule with suppressed rage. If the workers were revolutionary enough we
could easily deal with the peasants, but the workers are not capable of sacrifice.” (BG 312)
SEGUE So instead of a Soviet regime that was opposed
by most, much of Hungary was now occupied by the Romanian army, and the terms of the
armistice they proposed made for some controversy. The August armistice terms demanded Hungary
disarm, and submit to occupation. 40,000 Red Army troops also became prisoners
of war. In addition, the Romanian government demanded
reparations in kind: Hungary was to hand over locomotives, rail cars, farm machinery, river
boats, wheat, and military equipment for 30,000 men (Nouzille 85). Almost immediately, the Allies set up a commission
to supervise the occupation and Hungarian disarmament. But there was no Romanian representative on
that commission, and relations between the Romanians and the Allies, chiefly the French,
were tense. The Romanians expected the Allies would be
pleased they had finally removed the Bolshe vik threat to the heart of Europe. Instead, the Allies, already annoyed their
instructions to the Romanians over the previous months had often been ignored, were unhappy
with the reports of widespread looting and pillaging (Torrey 312). Like other countries, Romania had suffered
severe economic hardship during the war, and after their defeat by the Central Powers , all
sorts of food and equipment had been seized. Now, many felt they had the right to do the
same in Hungary. A Polish envoy in Budapest, Baron Jan Szembek,
was appalled by what he called quote “[the] barbaric and extremely destructive” occupation. When an American officer complained to Queen
Marie, she replied “You may call it stealing if you want to, or any other name. But I feel that we are perfectly entitled
to do what we want to.” (Macmillan 276)
By November, the Entente decided that the Romanians and others should withdraw from
Hungary to the borders proposed by the Peace Conference commission. The problem was, it wasn’t quite clear what
sort of government would replace them, and whether some measure of stability could be
restored. Though one well-known historian has said that
Hungary’s next government was “more stable” than the Soviet Republic, this so-called stability
would come at a price. (Macmillan 276) So the Romanians left Budapest on November
14 and the occupation of Budapest came to an end. The movement that now stepped into the gap
and took power in Hungary had been waiting for this moment for months. Now when the Bolshevik revolution succeeded
back in March, more than 100,000 Hungarians fled the new regime and took refuge in Austria
(BG 110). Many of the refugees were aristocrats and
officers opposed to the Communist regime and in favour of restoring the Kingdom of Hungary. They formed the so-called Vienna Committee
in the hopes of returning to Budapest when the time was right. At the same time, in French-occupied Szeged,
another anti-Bolshevik group began to organize under French protection. They were led by Count Gyula Karolyi, whose
cousin Mihaly had led Hungary until the communist takeover, but they also had links to radical
right wing groups . The two groups made common cause and merged
in an uneasy alliance, and Karolyi appointed Miklos Horthy Minister for War. Their plan was to hold elections based on
universal suffrage and form a constitutional government, but they still needed a military,
so Horthy began to organize the National Army in June. A major challenge the conservative counter-revolutionaries
faced was gaining the support of the French. The French were suspicious of the Karolyi
group, and saw them as reactionary, sympathetic to the monarchy, and Germanophile. But they did share a common anti-Bolshevik
position. French General Charpy assured the Szeged government:
“Wherever the French are, there is no Communism!” (Tihany 385). Karolyi tried hard to get French support for
a march on Budapest but could get no more than a promise of neutrality, so he and Horthy
both resigned their cabinet posts. Horthy became Commander in Chief of the National
Army and remained the most important figure in the stalled counter revolutionary government. Meanwhile in Budapest, once the Soviet government
collapsed, yet another governing group emerged. Just two days after the social democrat Peidl
took over the reins in the capital, he was driven out in a bloodless coup on August 6. The takeover had long been planned by the
radical right-wing and anti-semitic White House group, but was co-opted by the more
moderate politician Istvan Friedrich, with tacit Romanian approval. Friedrich became Prime Minister and named
Josef of Habsburg , a distant cousin of the former emperor, .
The Allies were not happy with this turn of events. Neither were the Czechoslovaks, who feared
a Habsburg restoration. Foreign Minister Edvard Benes wrote Clemenceau:
“What is going on in Hungary now under Josef von Habsburg is extremely dangerous for the
peace of Central Europe…this will lead exactly to the same result as under the Bela Kun government;
that is to an extremely deep hostility of Hungary to all the neighbouring states.” (Nouzille 85) Despite the fact that most of
Friedrich’s ministers were democrats from the pre-Bolshevik cabinet, Allied opinion
remained firmly suspicious of the Habsburg connection. Friedrich wanted to avoid an endless cycle
of violence and called for calm: “The government is filled not with revenge but with the spirit
of compassion and conciliation.” (Balogh 284). But for all Friedrich’s intentions, he still
lacked a military. The only Hungarian armed force was Horthy’s
national army, which had 3000 men in August, and it soon made itself felt. The army consisted of regular units alongside
paramilitary militias, like those led by Baron Pal Pronay and Ivan Hejjas. These paramilitaries were the primary perpetrators
of the White Terror as they advanced into the countryside late that summer. In theory, they were motivated by revenge
against the Bolsheviks, and they did execute some who were responsible for the Red Terror,
but they also acted as hired killers. They associated the Soviet Republic with the
Jews, and these became the prime target of their murderous activity – by the time the
White terror was over in 1921, between 1000 and 3000 people had been killed (BG 111, Revesz). Though the degree of Horthy’s involvement
in the atrocities remains a topic of debate, he did write this later: “I have no reason
to gloss over deeds of injustice and atrocities committed when an iron broom alone could sweep
the country clean.” (Horthy 348)
Once the Romanian troops withdrew, Horthy’s National Army advanced on Budapest, and he
entered the city on November 16 . He soon took control of the government, and under
his rule the White Terror would continue to rage. The hopes of those Hungarians who wished to
see a return to the goals of the October 1918 revolution had been dashed. Alright, so by the end of 1919 the fighting
in Central Europe had stopped, but real stability was still a distant prospect. Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia had
gained territory, but a peace treaty had not yet been signed. Romania had nearly achieved the goal of Romania
Mare, or Greater Romania, and some viewed the defeat of Hungary as retribution for a
thousand years of oppression. The French departed Central Europe without
having reached their objective of a friendly, democratic Hungarian government. As for Hungary, it was a society burning with
resentment: there was still hatred between left and right within the country, the White
Terror continued, and many felt that a great historical injustice was being inflicted by
the Great Powers. And the coming peace treaty would only stoke
those fears. As usual, you can find all our sources for
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the join button below. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The Great
War 1919, a production of Real Time History and the only YouTube history channel whose

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