The siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-45 was not as militarily significant as that of Stalingrad or as colossally wasteful of human life as Leningrad, but it was still a human tragedy of the highest order. For the Germans and their (often reluctant) Hungarian allies, Hitler’s order to defend the capital of Hungary was a costly strategic mistake. For the Soviets, it was an embarrassing obstacle on the way to Vienna. For 800,000 Hungarian civilians trapped in the city for over a hundred days, it was simply a nightmare.
Ungvary is an accomplished military historian who tells the story as it happened—histoire événementielle at its best—relying on hundreds of eyewitness accounts and on many hitherto unknown German and Hungarian documentary sources. His relative neglect of the Soviet sources is the book’s only shortcoming.
The book is divided into seven chapters and richly endowed with maps, tables, and photographs. John Lukacs’s Foreword sets the scene nicely, but to grasp the context of the story it should be read in conjunction with his Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (1988).
Until very late in the war, Hungary was relatively untouched by it. Regent Miklos Horthy—an admiral without a navy in a kingdom without a king—was an anti-Versailles revisionist par excellence, but he was not a New Order fanatic. He allied Hungary with Hitler in order to recover as many lands of the Crown of St. Stephen lost in 1919 as he could, and the fruits in 1939-41 proved considerable. By 1944, however, the writing on the wall was clear: Germany was doomed. Horthy’s clumsy attempts to establish contact with the Allies and negotiate a separate peace prompted the Germans to replace him with a “government” of psychopaths and common criminals known as the Arrow Cross Party. With the exception of Ante Pavelic’s Ustasha regime in Zagreb, no other Quisling team in occupied Europe was as thoroughly degenerate as this “unlearned rubble” (in the words of Lukacs).
As the Red Army crossed Hungary’s eastern borders in October 1944, the fall of Budapest seemed imminent. It would have happened had Stalin, on October 28, allowed Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the commander of the Second Ukrainian Front, five days’ preparation before commencing the attack. Stalin’s stub- born refusal to do so— “I expressly order you to begin the offensive against Budapest tomorrow!”—doomed the city. Underpowered and undersupplied, Malinovsky’s troops were able to reach the outskirts of Budapest but were unable to take it. By the first week of November, the commander of the German Army Group South, Gen. Hans Friessner, was able to establish a viable defense parameter.
By the end of December, Budapest was completely surrounded and about to experience six weeks of unspeakable privations. Ungvary tells the story dryly, which makes its awfulness all the starker. Thousands of Hungarian soldiers went into hiding, unwilling to die for no good reason. Thousands of others fought on grimly, equally fearful of the distrustful Germans and of the Soviet “liberators.” The Arrow Cross squads were more interested in rounding up and murdering Jews on the Danube quays than in defending the city. House-to-house fighting reduced much of Pest to rubble, with starving civilians often caught in crossfire in the dank and dimly lit cellars. Pest fell on January 18, 1945, by which time the massive Soviet push to the Oder and to Berlin was in full swing. The Germans blew up the bridges on the Danube and defended Buda, the Castle Hill, until February 12. A desperate breakout attempt by the defenders ended in failure and carnage.
Stalin’s blunder in insisting on an immediate attack at the end of October was joined by Hitler’s in ordering Budapest to be defended at any cost. Granting the fact that the war was already lost, in tactical terms it would have been far more useful for the German high command to have had the more than 100,000 troops trapped in Budapest at its disposal for the defense of the southeastern border of the Reich. Even at that late stage of the war, Hitler had not learned the lesson of Stalingrad: that leaving encircled garrisons deep behind the enemy lines to fight to the last bullet is exactly what the enemy wished him to do. Karl Pfeffer- Wildenbruch, the German commander, compounded Hitler’s mistake by de- laying the breakout attempt until it was doomed to fail.
As Ungvary points out, Budapest with- stood the siege longer than any other city defended by the Germans, yet the effort was pointless. The German troops’ morale remained unparalleled up to the very end—not because the average Landser was fiercely loyal to the National Socialist regime but because he perceived the war as a total one that left him with no personal choice in the matter. The Hungarian soldier, by contrast, did not regard the war as an existential issue: “In 500 years of history Hungary had lost every war, so the Hungarians were more familiar than the Germans with defeat and its consequences.”
Indeed: Six decades later, Hungary remains confined to her Trianon borders, but, as a consequence of that defeat, she is more stable and coherent than she would otherwise have been. Budapest is back on the map of Europe as a vibrant metropolis. The scars of 1944-45, combined with those of 1956, are no longer in evidence. Krisztian Ungvary’s book will preserve for posterity the record of an epic yet futile struggle that will soon fade from living memory.
[The Siege of Budapest, by Krisztian Ungvary; Foreword by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 512 pp., $35.00]