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Miklós Horthy Is Elected Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary: March 1, 1920

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


Emperor Karl’s withdrawal from power on November 11, 1918, marked the end of one of Europe’s oldest institutions—the Habsburg monarchy. The heir of the great family that had ruled the Holy Roman Empire now lived in exile in Switzerland. Karl had hoped to remain in Austria, but the new republican government in Vienna had given him an ultimatum—either he abdicate or risk imprisonment. Convinced that he would be betraying his God-given duty by abdicating, Karl chose exile. On the rainy night of March 23, 1919, Karl and his family boarded a train for Switzerland.


Instead of a united empire, Central Europe now had three newly independent states—Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Both Austria and Hungary themselves were greatly reduced in size. Austria had to abandon Trentino, part of the Tyrol, as well as her territory on the Adriatic to Italy; she also had to give over Bosnia and Herzegovina to the kingdom of Yugoslavia, as Serbia now was called. Bohemia and Slovakia had been joined in the independent republic of Czechoslovakia, while Galicia became part of the newly reconstructed Poland. Hungary had to abandon Croatia and Slavonia to Yugoslavia, while Transylvania and other lands formerly part of Hungary went to Romania.


Karl I in Chernivtzi, Ukraine, July 6, 1917
Karl I in Chernivtzi, Ukraine, July 6, 1917

Austria thus went from a land of 30 million people to a small, landlocked country of only 6.5 million. Since most of these people spoke German, the Austrians hoped that they could be united to Germany—after all, Wilson and the Allies had said that people of a common race should be ruled by one government. But though Wilson thought it made sense that Austria be joined to Germany, he saw one problem with the plan—with Austria, the majority of Germany’s population would be Catholic. Austria should never be united to Germany, said Wilson, for it “would mean the establishment of a great Roman Catholic nation which would be under the control of the Papacy.”


Hungary had fallen into anarchy even before Emperor Karl withdrew from power. The attempt by Liberals to form a new democratic government had failed. The socialists were gaining popular support and power.


In December 1918, a Hungarian Jew named Béla Kun arrived in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. Kun had been living in Russia since 1914 and had become a Bolshevik. Vladimir Lenin himself had trained Kun in revolutionary tactics and, when Hungary’s government collapsed in November, Lenin sent Kun with a large amount of money to organize a revolution in his homeland. In Budapest, Kun published a Bolshevik newspaper in which he criticized the Liberal government. Even after being imprisoned, he continued to spread Bolshevik propaganda and organize a Hungarian Communist party. By February 1919, the party numbered 30,000 to 40,000 members.


Upon his release from prison, Kun organized a coalition government with the socialists and on March 21, 1919, proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Though Kun and his Bolshevik Communists were supposed to be sharing power with the socialists, it was not long before all moderate socialists were removed from the government and Kun became dictator of Hungary.


Kun kept in continual contact with Lenin and began imitating the Russian Bolsheviks by seizing factories and large landholdings. The Magyar peasants had hoped Kun would hand lands over to them, but he did not. Instead, he planned to force the peasants to work without payment on communal farms, where he required them to provide food for the cities. When opposition arose against him, Kun began his own Red Terror. Revolutionary tribunals were established, which condemned 590 to death. Secret police and red militias terrorized people in the countryside.


Miklós Horthy
Miklós Horthy

But Kun was unable, as he had promised, to recover the lands the Allies had taken from Hungary. By late July, the Romanians were marching on Budapest, and Kun fled to Vienna on August 1. Three days later, the French-supported Romanian army entered Budapest.


The Allies hoped to establish a democratic republic in Hungary, but counterrevolutionary forces under Admiral Miklós Horthy were moving against Budapest. Parts of this army carried on a brutal “White Terror” against socialists, Communists, workers’ leaders, and Jews—because some Jews, like Béla Kun, had been active in Communist groups. After the Romanians withdrew from Budapest on November 14 (after looting the city), Horthy and his forces entered the capital and restored the kingdom of Hungary. On March 1, 1920, Horthy was elected regent—he ruled the kingdom in the name of Emperor Karl, known in Hungary as King Károly IV. Horthy, however, did not ask Karl to return to Hungary (in part because the Allies would not allow it). Under Horthy’s regency, anticommunist groups carried on a White Terror, unopposed by the government.


Not until June 1920 did Hungary sign her peace treaty with the Allies. By the treaty, the territory of Hungary was reduced from 125,000 to 35,000 square miles and went from a population of 20 million to 8 million. The treaty was a bitter blow to the proud Magyar nation.



Folkish Music in the Year of Horthy’s Triumph


Béla Bartók, one of the great composers of Hungary, is less known for his research into his country’s folk song traditions. Bartók not only transcribed Hungarian folk songs but imbued his own compositions with the elements of folk melody, rhythm, and texture. The Improvisations on Hungarian Songs, completed in 1920, exemplifies Bartók’s inspiration. Here it is performed by the Hungarian pianist, Zoltán Kocsis.



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