Unlikely Frontline City, Impossible Choices:

Ungváry, The Siege of Budapest: 100 days in World War II (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002).

The front has arrived. They are installing machine guns on both balconies of the upper floor. In my room they wanted to set up an automatic cannon…. They were carrying firewood from the garden to build barricades in the windows. They are also putting furniture into the windows. Germans …inform me …that they will shoot me if I don’t go back to the cellar, as civilians have no business to be in the front line. I assure them that it won’t stay the front line long ….

~ László Deseő (aged 15 in his diary): pp. 279-282.

National Socialism, Right-wing Extremism and Anticommunism in Budapest

For decades the workers of the world have been looking to Moscow like the ignorant laborer to Christ. It is from there that they expected…liberation from the barbaric vandalism of fascism. After long and painful persecution the glorious, longed-for Red Army has come, but what a Red Army! …. The liberating Red Army arrived on 2 January after heavy house-to-house fighting, leaving destruction, devastation and desolation in its wake. This is not because there were fascists among the rags and bits of furniture in the homes of the people who had been wage slaves for decades: among working people of Kőbánya very few were pro-German and the rest hated the Nazis. Rather, it was an outbreak of rampant, demented hatred…. Comrades sent to the countryside to promote land distribution are being asked by the peasants what use the land is to them if their horses have been taken away from the meadows by the Russians –they cannot plow with their noses.

~In an appeal to the Soviets from Kobanya communists, pp. 350-352.

That single line from the diary of young László Deseő says it all –the front had arrived: the war had not only come to town but it spilled from the streets of Budapest into residential areas and even entered the homes of the city’s denizens. Modern warfare was no longer being waged in conventional battle fields but in an urban jungle with troops fighting from street to street and from one block to another, and house-to-house. This meant an assortment of military engagements and maneuvers happening in all manner of unusual places –casinos (p.166); cemeteries (p.140); culverts and sewers (pp.137 & 215); cafés (p. 217); butcheries (p.215); the Comedy Theatre (p.258); city squares; house balconies, bedrooms; and as in the case of Deseő, in once tranquil family sanctuaries such as the sitting room. Civilians caught up in the heavy Christmas traffic doing shopping that comes with the season, suddenly realized that they were caught in the middle of the struggle for Budapest played out even in city transport (read trains) [pp. 56-57]. They were dumbfounded, for example, when “they discovered Soviet advance guards with submachine guns in their midst” (p.55). It dawned on them that they were now in the middle of the front. While this is not necessarily special or unique to Budapest considering other significant sieges and urban warfare, for instance, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna and Stalingrad, it is equally important at two levels. One is that this book serves to shed light on a marginalized theatre of World War II. Secondly, it says a lot about the relationship between war and society in general.

The author does not, necessarily, set out to capture the relationship between war and society. However, this comes out clearly in this impressively detailed study, which, in effect, demonstrates the inter-penetrability of the two. Indeed, from the time Arrow Cross takes over government in mid-October 1944; during the four-month siege from 25th December; and when the Germans breakout towards mid-January 1945; these two –war and society- cannot be said to be exclusive. One cannot talk of war and society in light of the masterful reconstruction of the events leading to the routing of Nazis from Hungary and subsequent Soviet installation accompanied by vicious atrocities. One can only, and safely, speak of war in society or a society in war. As pointed out above, war as experienced in this rather backwater and/or long ignored theatre of the Second World War was not a distant phenomenon but a terrifying and gruesome reality that faced civilians caught up in it. The front line had converged, literally, with the home-front: and, in this case, the one was the other. As Ungváry observes, “hopeless operations” ended in mass butchery during the war “but in this case it all happened in the center of the city before the eyes of the civilian population” (p.201). Therefore, without trying to engage in unnecessary theoretical pass-time about disciplinary turf or the proper locus of the study of war or how society’s affected by it, the author ruptures the illusionary veil between societies in war or war in society. Ungváry’s vivid analysis of the day-to-day realities of a society caught up in the vortex of war, therefore, shows that both military or/and operational history can be juxtaposed with everyday civilians experiences of conflict. It is the consequences of this merger –as extensively and competently dealt with in this book- that we should perhaps turn out attention.

Cities have long been targets of military strategy in the history of war. This case study does not, to its added merit, dwell too much on the strategic importance of Budapest. However, from very early on, the author ably demonstrates the political motivations of both Hitler and Stalin with respect to Budapest. For the former, Budapest was a pawn city meant “to halt and retard the Russian advance toward Vienna as much as possible” (p. xxii). For this reason, he cared little about what happened to it –if it this involved its destruction, so be it. He was, after all, fighting for time even if it would cost him men (p.181). Stalin on the other hand, saw it not only in terms of logical, strategic and geographic terms in his prized bid of Soviet Russia’s westward campaign towards the heart of Nazi Germany –Berlin- but also broader and farsighted political calculations. The future of Eastern Europe was uppermost on his mind: in this regard he was well ahead of his western counterparts –Britain and United States. In many ways, for Stalin, what would later come to be referred to as the Cold War, was (already) on. He wanted to gain as much of Eastern Europe as his military victories (“for the allies”) could muster. The komintern Bolshevik project was (still) on with a tinge of old imperial intentions of the Soviet Union. However, this is not what The Siege of Budapest is really about.

Overall, one cannot fail to appreciate the author’s rendition of this multifaceted urban debacle, and its accompanying Hungarian political complexities and violent racial peculiarities. The most poignant point it makes is the effect or impact of confined combat. Simply put, cities are not exactly meant or made for intense physical conflagration. In most cases, they are human abodes –and in the case of Budapest, in the thick of things between October 1944 and January 1945, were at least eight-hundred thousand people. They were trapped in a confined and tight urban landscape and “at the mercy of …fighter planes like mice…. Imagine the logjam in front of …vehicles …narrow winding streets, close-quarter fighting ….” (p. 151). Yet, the city was subjected a sky barrage of bombs that lasted between seven and ten hours daily for three days (p. 124). This was augmented by “extremely intensive artillery, mortar, and antitank fire and …waves of fighter aircraft ….” (p.169). As a result, nearly a million people would take refuge in overcrowded cellars some of which received direct hits, killing their occupants. When the German break-out began in the early days of February, some of these civilians formed huge crowds trying to flee the city –attempts that came to a bloody end. They came under mortar fire in the narrow street lanes: masses of humanity were under gun blasts that resulted in mountains of dead people (pp. 210-212). Mothers pushing baby carriages, old people and other civilians surging out of buildings “like meat squeezed from a sausage machine” were slaughtered (pp.215-216, 231). One of the city squares, Szell was hell: the dead and wounded were lying in every doorway and in the street (p.216).

It is not surprising that the words chosen by one of the author’s informants correspond with the descriptions of Cochet (2008) and Sheehan (2008) that paint World War I as a total war. Indeed, these three works suggest that the mere fact that modern war technology targeted human bodies indicates that the twentieth century had ushered unprecedented carnage. Mechanized violence meant the blowing of bodies to pieces leaving one armed or one legged human wrecks, disfigured by wounds (p. 278). According to Ungváry, the effect of unmitigated urban violence in Budapest reached apocalyptic proportions. “…Mountains of bodies, human remains carved up by …tanks” lay in the streets. Paving stones were covered in blood and pieces of flesh. City squares had bodies piled up in pyres several metres high (p. 255). The Siege of Budapest also corresponds with the description of the Great War as total war with regard to the impact of this destructive military force on the environment: the author notes how this conflict left incredible destruction of the urban landscape. With regard to physical landmarks, one could only guess at streets –“this was the corner house with the Florian Café, this is the street where I once lived –no trace of the building –this pile of rubble at the corner of Statisztika Street and Margit Boulevard was a five-story block with many apartments and a café a few days ago ….” (p. 283). Such descriptions of war in Budapest told first hand by people who experienced it lend credibility to the assertion that the city experienced total war. Ungváry, of course, does not pointedly say this: however, he does note that the siege and the break-out can be appreciated only against the background of total-war psychosis (pp. 122 & 255).

Does the author convince the reader that his subject is worth attention alongside better covered Second World War sieges –Warsaw and Stalingrad, for example? That the siege of Budapest was second only to Berlin and Vienna as he argues? That it is unique? What’s clear is that with his meticulous treatment of his subject –a blow by blow account and/or reconstruction of events there, the siege Budapest steps out of obscurity. It emerges from the shadows of this war’s general history and takes its rightful place alongside other like events. Even if Ungváry’s word is the last that we ever hear on this subject, this phenomenal experience of a city and its people can no longer be suppressed or ignored. As far as uniqueness goes: this siege is certainly special or different from the rest. The political dynamics involved–for example, its accompanying civil war/strife; the number of civilians caught in the siege; how long it lasted and cost in human lives- make Budapest distinct. Indeed, this book is, in the main, about some of the characteristics that make this siege unique.

A good example of this uniqueness is the uneven and uneasy relationship between the Nazis, and Hungarian politicians and the Honvéd. The intricacies of this mutually distrustful relationship ultimately lead to the Arrow Cross take-over and subsequent events. German “superiority” or subordination and discrimination of Honvéd officers are a recurring theme in this book. It is mostly played out as a deliberate communication breakdown between the German command in Budapest and the Hungarian army (pp. 46, 54, 73, 82, 115 & 265). It is mainly fed by German mistrust of the Hungarians more than, say, outright racial superiority. In addition disparate military ranking systems ensured that older Hungarian officers took orders from young energetic German officers. What’s even more remarkable about this siege is the predicament that Hungarian officers in particular and Hungarian leadership in general find themselves. This is with regard to, not only German patronization, but with respect to the impossible options available to Hungarian leadership (pp.92-93). The sorry fate of Colonel-General Ivan Hindy is the embodiment of the indecision of Hungarian leadership in the face of tough choices. On the one hand was communism, which to many –read Hungarian working class majority- “meant nothing but robbery, murder, and above all a total lack of religion and a moral slough” (pp.92 & 93). On the other hand was the highhanded and fanatical anti-feudal and anti-Semitic brand of Hungarian fascism of Arrow Cross –a group that was repugnant to not only Hungarian officers but also Nazis stationed in Budapest. It was resisted by Hungarian antifascist elements such as the MNFFB, which spearheaded the Hungarian Front; KISKA, the Görgey Battalion, Hungarian Freedom Movement and various area-specific resistance groups (pp.305-319) –which basically constituted a war within a war (civil war). This, then, is yet another uniqueness of the war for Budapest. Lastly, another unique feature is Budapest’s rather ambiguous liberation by the Russians: this was accompanied by rapine, rape and further carnage with civilians bearing the brunt of brute military force. All this is dealt with by the author with overawing dexterity: Ungváry lets numerous sources speak for themselves in what is a gripping story accessible to a patient reader – be s/he a layman or student of history.

Ungváry also applies his analytical skills with a touch of impressive investigative sophistication –the manner in which he deals with the question of the Russian parley delegates is a good case in point (pp. 116 & 124). The Siege of Budapest is a compelling narrative that not only retrieves it from historical backwaters but also successfully elevates it as an important Second World War theater. Not necessarily because of its implications for the general trend or outcome of the war but in its portrayal of how war and society can enmesh intrinsically thereby becoming undifferentiated. At such times, as he aptly points out, it is characterized by runaway irrationality (p.117). This book, therefore, raises a serious question of the extent to which violence can be structured/controlled or meted measuredly. It provides strong evidence that the pursuit of political objectives through proportionate limited violence can degenerate into disaster and rabid demented hatred (p.351). The excesses and mutual atrocities in Budapest as documented by this author will forever remain testimony to this, and hopefully, as a caution about the use/deployment of violence as diplomacy by other means.




[1] The emphasis in bold italics is mine.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.