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A victim of the White Terror

The White Terror in Hungary was a two-year period (1919-1921) of repressive violence by counter-revolutionary soldiers, with the intent of crushing any vestige of Hungary’s brief Communist revolution.


At the end of World War I, the political configuration of the Hungarian state was forced into swift and radical change.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Hungary had been a powerful member, collapsed. The victorious Entente powers took steps to carve away Hungary’s ethnically-mixed border regions and grant them to Serbiamarker, Czechoslovakiamarker, and Romaniamarker – efforts which resulted in Hungary’s losing two thirds of its land area, and one third of its Hungarian-speaking nationals. These losses catalyzed deep feelings of humiliation and resentment among many Hungarians.

In this volatile atmosphere, the nation’s fledgling efforts at modern democracy failed. In March 1919, a Communist cadre took advantage of the political instability, seized power and installed their leader, Béla Kun, as premier of a new Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Kun’s regime lasted less than four months. The nation was shocked by the Communists’ thuggish enforcers, gangs of roving toughs who intimidated and murdered their opponents in what came to be known as the Red Terror. This kind of vengeful internal violence was new to Hungary, and the popularity of Kun’s regime plummeted.

Kun attempted to reclaim by force lost imperial lands in Slovakia and Transylvania – but these steps only brought a counter-invasion by Romanian troops, who reached Budapest in August 1919. Kun and his fellow Communists fled; the Communist revolution in Hungary was over.

The White Terror begins

In the south of the country, an alternative government formed to replace the failed Kun regime. Leading the armed wing of this new government was Admiral Miklós Horthy, one-time Admiral of the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Horthy named his new force the National Army. Among the officers who answered Horthy’s call were ultra-nationalist soldiers who mounted a campaign of atrocities to avenge the victims of the Red Terror; to suppress any lingering loyalty to Communist principles; and to frighten the population into obedience to the new order.

These units, commonly known as the "White Guard," carried out a campaign of murder, torture and humiliations. Summary executions of people they suspected of Communist allegiance were common; these victims were often hanged in public places to serve as a warning to others. But the White Guard’s definition of who was an enemy of the state was a broad one. They also preyed upon peasants, upon the politically liberal, and very often upon Jews, who were broadly blamed for the Revolution because much of the Communist leadership had been Jewish.

The most notorious of unit commanders was Pál Prónay, who by all accounts brought a particularly sadistic pleasure to his work. Others included Gyula Ostenberg, Anton Lehar, and Ivan Hejjas, who focused his efforts on the Hungarian plain around the town of Kecskemet. Their detachments were part of the National Army, but tended to function as personal battalions following a fanatical loyalty to their commanders.

The White Terror after 1919

The National Army took control of Budapestmarker in November 1919, and four months later Admiral Horthy was named regent of a newly reconstituted Kingdom of Hungary. But, far from discontinuing their campaigns, the reactionary units expanded and continued terrorizing their targets for almost two more years; politically-motivated violence devolved into grudge-murders and kidnappings for profit. White Guard officers began to vie for power among themselves, and plotted for one another’s assassinations.

If, as Horthy’s biographer Thomas Sakmyster concludes, Horthy looked the other way in 1919 while the White Guard officers raged through the countryside, the regent also clearly saw the danger that these units posed to a newly stabilized Hungarian state after 1920. He began taking steps to rein in the White Terror.

In 1921, Prónay was prosecuted for crimes related to his terror campaign. Finally, after Prónay joined a failed attempt to restore the Habsburg king, Charles I of Austria to Hungary’s throne, Horthy ordered the battalion disbanded.

The dissolution of the Pronay Battalion in January 1922 is considered to mark the end of the White Terror.


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