Magyar Szó

"Documenting the life of the Hungarian community in New Zealand"
- Az új-zélandi magyar közösség lapja.

Issue 82 - December 2005

Book Review: The Siege of Budapest: 100 Days in World War II

The Siege of Budapest which lasted from 29 October 1944 until 13 February 1945 was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of WWII. When it finally ended, Budapest was destroyed and over 100,000 Hungarians were killed. The victorious Soviet army looted, raped and pillaged the city and its inhabitants. The Iron Curtain then descended upon Hungary and it would not be until 1989 that the last Soviet troops would leave Hungarian soil.

This is the story that Ungváry tells in this comprehensive, compelling and horrifying account. It is a tragic story full of the horrors of war. It is hard to imagine how any one who experienced the siege and survived could be anything other scarred as a result of the those 100 days.

Hungary in October 1944 was a divided country. A percentage of the population remained pro-German and regarded the arrival of the Soviets as an unmitigated disaster. A much smaller percentage supported the Arrow Cross, who had seized control and terrorized the population, especially the Jewish population of Budapest. Another part of Budapest anxiously awaited the arrival of the Soviets and hoped for their "liberation" by the Soviets. The rest of the population worried about just surviving.

In this story there are many villains and precious few heroes. The two leaders of Nazi Germany and the Union Soviet bear the main responsibility for what happened. Hitler had decreed that Budapest was to be defended at all costs, street by street, building by building if necessary. It was. His purpose was to slow the Soviet advance towards Vienna as much as possible. Stalin on the other hand wanted to ensure that Hungary and Budapest were firmly under Russian control and would remain so. The cost of this meant nothing to him and indeed Soviet military losses were higher than either the Germans or the Hungarian military losses at some 70,000 dead and over 200,000 wounded. These two great powers fought out their conflict without regard to the local population or to anyone else and left Budapest a shattered ruin.

The German High Command ignored their notional Hungarian allies and did not consult them on any military or other matters. The Allies took no action as they regarded Hungary as part of the Soviet sphere of influence and therefore not worthy of attention.. A day or so before the siege ended, the conference at Yalta took place, and the fate of post-war Europe was sealed. Hungary was not mentioned.

In the story of the siege of Budapest one particular part stands out as particularly horrific. The so-called break-out, when the Germans and civilians attempted to break through the Soviet encirclement in Buda on 11 February, is, in Ungváry's opinion, not only one of the most horrific events of the siege itself but of the entire World War II.

Of the 28,000 that participated in the break-out, some 45% were killed, many in the first few hours. Less than one thousand made it through. All this took place before the very eyes of the local civilian population who were inevitably caught up in the slaughter and destruction. The fighting and the aftermath is described in harrowing and dispassionate detail by Ungváry. It makes it chilling reading. And even more so because the places where much of the break-out occurred will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Budapest. In particular much of the fighting took place in and around Moszkva Square (then known as Széll Kálmán Square) and Széna Square, a busy, bustling place and one of the main routes in and out of Buda.

The pages dealing with the aftermath of the Soviet victory also make harrowing reading. The looting, pillaging, deportation and rape that took place is difficult to comprehend. One estimate is that about 10 percent of the population was raped. The situation was so dire that even arguably the most hated Hungarian of all time, Mátyás Rákosi, secretary general of the Communist Party, appealed to the Soviet authorities.

Ungváry tells all the story of the siege of Budapest with a great deal of detail and there is a huge store of information, including, maps and tables, that will be of particular interest to military historians. At times this level of information threatens to over-whelm the general reader but the author allows the story of those involved to shine through and for the full tragedy of those terrible days to come through. With many of the archives of this period now available to historians, there is a wealth of new material that has shed light on this terrible battle. A scholarly work by a professional historian, yes, but this book is a worthy monument to the suffering that took place during those 100 days.

Paul Hellyer

The Siege of Budapest: 100 Days in World War II by Krisztían Ungváry, Yale University Press, 2005, pp475, ISBN 0-300-10468-5

Magyar Szó Issue 82 - December 2005