Historian Leni Yahil estimates that in 1941 there were approximately 762,000 Jews living in Hungary, about a fourth of whom lived in Budapest. (The Holocaust, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 506). Under pressure from Nazi Germany, the conservative regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay instituted some anti-Semitic measures modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. However, up to 1944 Horthy didn’t agree with the Nazi policy of deporting and exterminating Hungarian Jews. The Communist politician Bela Vago described the Horthy regime as a contradictory mixture of authoritarianism and some openness to democratic input; of anti-Semitic attitudes and relative tolerance towards the native Jewish population in Hungary:
“This was one of the paradoxical phenomena of the Hungarian regime, which contained a mixture of vestiges of feudalism with democratic-parliamentary elements; the authoritarianism of a quasi-fascistic regime with tolerance towards the democratic opposition; an official anti-Semitic policy with tolerance toward Jews in the fields of journalism, the arts, and other areas of culture. The Jews could be active as members of Parliament until the German occupation in 1944.’”(Cited by Leni Yahil in The Holocaust, Leni Yahil, 507).
Following the Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, Horthy and Kallay began to realize that the Allies might win the war. Kallay sent out feelers to the Allies, hoping to negotiate an armistice for Hungary on favorable terms. When Hitler found out about this, Germany occupied Hungary. Horthy was allowed to remain the figurehead leader of Hungary, but Kallay was replaced with the fanatical pro-Nazi general Dome Sztojay. The latter fell into step with the Final Solution program and agreed to deport Hungary’s Jews.
Adolf Eichmann personally came to Hungary along with a team of “experts”, including Dr. Siefried Seidel (the former Commandant of Theresienstadt), Theodor Dannecker (in charge of the Jewish deportations from France, Bulgaria and Italy) and Dieter Wisliceny (who had been in charge of deporting the Greek and Slovakian Jews).
Although Eichmann was ever-present in Hungary, efficiently organizing the deportation of nearly 500,000 Jews living outside Budapest, he preferred to let the Hungarian gendarmes do the dirty work of rounding up the Jews in ghettos and sending them by train or in grueling death marches to concentration camps. By allowing for this “local initiative”, Eichmann hoped to appease the Hungarian leadership’s nationalist sentiments by giving them the illusion of relative autonomy. He later stated, “Over the years, I have learned from experience which hooks I have to use to catch which fish’” (The Holocaust, Yahil, 505). In less than two months, by August 1944, the Hungarian authorities and the SS had sent over 440,000 provincial Jews to concentration camps. All that was left was the Jews of Budapest.
Given that Germany continued to lose the war, Admiral Horthy hesitated to deport the Jews of the capital. He worried that this act would create a public outcry in the international press and provoke the Western Allies. Although under increasing pressure from Eichmann and his team to eliminate all the Jews of Hungary, Horthy put a stop to the deportations. He also dismissed the pro-Nazi Sztojay and began negotiating an armistice with the Soviets. In response, the Germans staged a coup and set up an even more extreme pro-Nazi government, led by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, whose members were notorious for their barbarism and anti-Semitism. In the process of rounding up the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, the Arrow Cross hooligans manifested great cruelty and sadism, engaging in looting, beating, raping and murdering hundreds of Jews. Thousands of Jews were forced into death marches across the Austrian borders while hundreds, including toddlers and children, were pushed into the ice-cold Danube River. All in all, Szalasi’s Arrow Cross gendarmes murdered 15,000 Jews.
It is largely due to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic efforts that about 140,000 Jews survived in the capital. The Soviets marched into Budapest on January 1945 and drove the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies out of power by that spring. Unfortunately, when he tried to meet with Soviet generals to help the lot of the Jews left in the Budapest ghetto, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the NKVD. Despite his valiant efforts, only a small percentage of Hungarian Jews in general lived through the Holocaust. Out of the country’s nearly 800,000 Jews living in Hungary in the early 1940’s, fewer than a third survived.