97: Eastern European Outcast


During this episode we dive into the story of one of the smaller players in European politics during the interwar years, Hungary.


  • Army Officers and Foreign Policy in Interwar Hungary, 1918-41 by Thomas L. Sakmyster
  • The Dynamics of British Official Policy towards Hungarian Revisionism, 1938-39 by Andras Becker
  • The Development of the Hungarian Aircraft Industry, 1938-1944 by Miklos Szabo
  • German-Hungarian Relations Following Hitler’s Rise to Power (1933-34) by I. Berend and Gy Ranki (1963)
  • Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918–45 (Encounters) by Stephen L. Renner


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 97 - Hungary Pt. 1 - Eastern European Outcast. This week a big thank you goes out to Matt for choosing to become a member. Members get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member only episodes roughly every month, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. I also wanted to let you know that on June 25th I will be speaking at the Intelligent Speech 2022 conference. This is a fully online event where I will be joined by over 35 other historians and history podcasters to discuss a wide range of topics. I will be giving a talk entitled “The Correct Wrong Choice: The Interwar Years and Results Based Analysis” in which I will chat a bit about how we should approach discussions about events that happen before major events like the Second World War. During the session there will be an opportunity for some Q&A, which was a ton of fun last year. You can use my code Second, that is just the word Second, at checkout so that they know that you heard about it here. You can find the link in the show notes, or you can head over to intelligentspeechconference.com to register or to find out more. Over the course of the podcast we have spent a lot of time on what I would call the Big Players of the Interwar Period. We have already had dedicated episodes on Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, who were all important drivers of European politics during the 1920s and 1930s, the only nation that rivaled their influence was the Soviet Union, which we will have dedicated episodes for next year. But there were also many other nations that interacted with the larger nations, and were forced to try and find their own way in an increasingly dangerous geopolitical situation. What I wanted to do before the episode on the invasion of Poland was to pick one of those nations and discuss some of its actions during the interwar years. I landed on Hungary, because of its position in central Europe, its tumultuous relations with its neighbors, its choice to enter into agreements that made it reliant on Germany and Italy, and also because I ended up randomly picking up Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918–45 by Stephen L. Renner. Broken Wings will form the basis for much of the next two episodes which will focus on both the Hungarian domestic political situation, its relations with other nations, and the creation and grown of the Hungarian Air Force after it was disbanded after the First World War. In both the political and military areas, Hungary would be a smaller player surrounded by either larger nations or long time enemies like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and it was also a nation that could look back at what appeared to be a more glorious recent past.

To understand Hungary’s position during the interwar period, and I am sure you know where I am going with this, we have to start with the First World War. After the end of the war Hungary as in an interesting position, because as part of the Dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy it would share blame for Austria-Hungary’s participation in the war. It would break away from Austria as the empire disintegrated near the end of the conflict, but it would still be classified within the same group of nations as Germany, Austria, and Bulgaria. It would also be one of the several nations that were created in the wreckage of Austria-Hungary, and so there would be a delay between when the nation was created and when it signed a treaty with the Western nations to end the war, and this period of time would stretch from November 1918 until June 1920 when the Treaty of Trianon was signed. During this year and a half period Hungary was an independent nation, but was also did not have friendly diplomatic relations with all of the other nations in Europe. This period of limbo was common among all of the Austro-Hungarian successor states, but Hungary was treated as an enemy nation, unlike most of the others like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, which made the period one of uncertainty. Speaking of those other successor states, they were not exactly fans of Hungary, and they all had territorial disputes with the new Hungarian nation which made it very important that a Hungarian military get constituted and organized as soon as possible. They were able to transition their previous Imperial military into a new Hungarian military structure quite quickly, but it would also become clear over the course of the early months of 1919 that this military might not be allowed to exist for very long, due to some of the clauses that the Allied nations were pushing for during the Paris Peace Conference. A critical part of the Treaty of Versailles that was signed by Germany, and the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye which had been signed by Austria was the dissolution of those nation’s militaries, with it being replaced by a much smaller policing body. This structure would be transitioned over to the Treaty of Trianon that was signed by Hungary which mandated the disbandment of the Hungarian Army, Navy, and Air Force. Hungary was only allowed to keep a small force of just 35,000, with many of the innovations that had been so important on the First World War battlefield also forbidden, including tanks, heavy artillery, and aircraft. Outside of the clauses related to the military, there were also many border adjustments that saw previously Hungarian territory ceded to surrounding nations. These border adjustments were very common in the treaties of postwar Eastern Europe, but losing those areas would be a rallying cry for Hungarian irredentism in the decades that followed.

Much like Germany, who experienced a similar restriction of its military, Hungary would spend a good portion of the 1920s trying to find ways that it could get around the restrictions that it was now under. Some of these were difficult to work around, especially as treaty mandated inspectors moved into the country. One of the most direct ways that restrictions were evaded was through the physical movement of contraband material, like military aircraft, which would have groups of airmen who would spend their time trying to always stay one step ahead of the inspectors, who would destroy any military aircraft that they discovered. A slightly more efficient way of hiding aviation resources was in plain sight, something that was possible due to the growing popularity of civilian aviation. This would be accomplished by combining the previous military aviation section with the civilian aviation committee, with the combined group being placed within the Commerce Ministry. Within this new agency, most of the old air staff were placed in the Air transport Section, and from there they would able to exert their influence on the evolution of Hungarian civilian aviation, particularly around the training of pilots and the acquisition and creation of aircraft designs. There would be about 100 personnel in total within the Commerce Ministry that had previous training as military pilots. There would also be close relations with the first Hungarian National airline, which had been created in February 1920. As would happen in many airlines created during this period, the Hungarian company would inherit surplus military aircraft, as there were many surplus airframes available, with the only challenge being that most of these were not great of passenger service, but they made for a very capable airmail fleet. There would be a distinct military influence on the organization and operation of the airline, with the influence proving to be a bit more blatant. After the signing of the treaty of Trianon, the inspectors that had been allowed into Hungary to ensure they were following the treaty decided that the airline was influenced by the military in too drastic of a way and ordered it to be disbanded in December 1921. It would be quickly replaced by the creation of other airlines that were more clearly focused on civilian travel. This development, along with other actions that brought the Hungarian government into compliance with the treaty, allowed the inspectors to leave the country in April 1922. The dedicated group of inspectors was replaced by a much smaller footprint in the form of a single aeronautical inspector who would stay in the country until 1927. During the entire inspection era, many actions were taken by the Hungarian military and military adjacent groups to, if not circumvent the requirements of the treaty, at least to make their enforcement as annoying as possible for the inspectors. Here is Stephen L. Renner Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918–45 describing some of the ways that the Hungarian would try and interfere with the operations of the foreign inspectors “If the inspection were to take place at an airfield, the gate guards would hold the inspectors outside the field until the station commander approved their entry. The station commander would invariably be hard to find at short notice; while the guards were desperately searching for him, engineering staff would make operable aircraft appear to be useless spares, and then those personnel in excess of authorization would disappear. The station commander could then turn up, make the appropriate apologies, and welcome the inspectors to his airfield.” Overall, the period of inspections and limitations was a period in which the Hungarian air force, and other branches of its military would not exist in any physical sense. There were groups within the government that attempted to keep some amount of institutional cohesion, but their efforts to retain any kind of military hardware were quite unsuccessful.


After March 1927 Hungary would enter a period in which they were still technically forbidden from having a military, or from beginning any kind of rearmament program, but there was also little that could stop them from doing it if they really wanted to. It was really a matter of whether or not they wanted to draw the ire of the other signatories of the treaty. This would continue into the early 1930s as Hungary began to once again formalize its future planning and the general military theory that drove that planning. As with every other nation they would pull from the thinking and writings of others. Within the realm of airpower Captain Ferenc Szentnémedy would be one of the most influential thinkers, due to his position as an instructor of air power at the Hungarian Military Academy, he was also one of those thought leaders that could produce a very high number of writings that could then be published. Over the course of the decade before 1941 he would be the author of a quarter of all of the articles that appeared in the Hungarian military journey, which amounted to over 100 articles in total, and they were on average longer than the other articles. With such output it is easy to see how he was able to be so impactful on Hungarian airpower thinking. One of the most important aspects of Szentnémedy’s writings was that he could read German, English, and Italian which allowed him to read foreign airpower thinkers and incorporate their writings into his own. That included Douhet and his strategic bombing theories, beliefs that would prove to be very attractive to Szentnémedy. However, regardless of Szentnémedy’s specific theories on Air Power, he had to contend with the fact that the Hungarian military would for most of the period after 1927 be incredibly resource poor, with both money and raw materials being difficult to come by. The importance of airpower was generally agreed upon by both military and political leaders, and discussions would begin quite early after 1927 with the Italians as an avenue for acquiring aircraft and technology to build them in Hungary, but it would take years for these plans to come to fruition, or for the Hungarian air force to be able to actually utilize more aircraft due to the challenges of training new pilots. In the early years of the 1930s it was the relationship with the Italians that was crucial to Hungarian military expansion, with there being conversations about many different pieces of military hardware that could be purchased. In 1930 there was a plan to buy some fighters and bombers with the initial plan being to purchase 12 CR.20 fighters, but due to some delays in the agreement this would be changed to also include production rights to the CA.97 a more advanced Italian light transport design. There would be some challenges in manufacturing aircraft in Hungary during this time due to some shortcomings that they had in their ability to manufacture engines. Engines were really challenging, and it was one of the few areas in aircraft designs during the early 1930s that required true precision engineering. The right kind of manufacturing facilities had existed in the Austro-Hungarian empire, but they had mostly be located in other areas that were now in different countries. Engine manufacturing challenges also made it difficult for Hungarian aircraft designs to build and test domestic designs, which was always the goal. Just as some of the purchases from Italy were beginning to arrive, and as attempts were being made to build out the Hungarian arms industry, the Great Depression hit, with the resulting financial challenges that it brought to so many areas of the globe. The Hungarian National bank was drained of its gold and foreign currency reserves, and there was a general collapse of the financial agreements that had been created during the 1920s in the region. This made the pre-existing funding challenges even worse for the Hungarian government and the Hungarian military. As with many other nations, the upheavals caused by the financial impact would also result in a shift in government, with parliamentary elections held before the end of their term, but unlike in other nations the first round of these elections actually allowed the ruling part to maintain a strong majority. The fact that they had called early elections would prove to be a smart move, because as economic issues continued, and as the economic challenges in Hungary’s close economic relations like Germany and Austria continued to increase, the situation would get so bad that the government would then fall, with a new government, the first in 10 years, being assembled.

The banking crisis that would spread from Germany and Austria into Hungary would see the end of the government led by Prime Minister Bethlen, who had been in office for about 10 years when he resigned in August 1931. This was a pretty long tenure in office during these tumultuous years, but even if the Prime Minister changed, the overall continuity in the government was strong, with many ministers just continuing under the new leadership of Count Gyula Karolyi, with Bethlen staying on as Foreign Minister. Loans would also be acquired via the League of Nations which eased some of the funding constraints, but they came with certain conditions around government spending reductions. These reductions then hit the Hungarian rearmament efforts hard, as they were still being done in secret, and less overall government spending made it more difficult to funnel some money into rearmament funds. An immediate effect of these cuts was a reduction in the purchases that were being made from the Italians, both in terms of the raw number of aircraft as well as the total amount of money being spent. This was a setback for the overall rearmament efforts, but it was just a symptom of the problems that would eventually bring down the government again, at which point Karolyi would be replaced by Lieutenant General Gombos. Gombos was considered a right wing radical, and was a huge supporter of better relations with Germany, but he was still asked to form a government by President Horthy. And stop me if you have heard this before, but President Horthy put the condition on the government that it be filled by long term Hungarian politicians, who were far more moderate than Gombos with the theory bring that they would be able to moderate Gombos and his more radical ideology. And would you believe it, these efforts were not completely successful. Gombos would then spend the rest of his term in office, which also happened to be the last years of his life, moving Hungary closer and closer into the German orbit.

Gombos was not the only Hungarian who supported closer relations with Germany. During the Depression years in Hungary, and all of the resulting economic challenges that entailed, caused a growing concern among the upper class leaders and industrialists that Hungary was on a path to revolution. This fear was solidified by both the general discontent that was apparent in Hungary as well as the international situation, with fear of a communist revolution causing many political changes all over Europe. Because of these concerns Hitler coming to power in early 1933 was seen as a positive development, with the hope being that it would lead to a much closer relationship between the two nations. At an official level, there were discussions between the german and Hungarian governments about their plans and their relationship looking into the future, and to that end Gombos would visit Berlin in June 1933. He wanted to solidify relations between the two nations and also to gain Hitler’s support for the Hungarian government’s territory expansion goals. These mostly focused on Romania and Yugoslavia, both of which had been awarded territory in the postwar settlements that Hungarian irredentists sought to regain. Hitler was generally sympathetic to Hungarian territorial revisionism, but would also make it clear that Germany would provide only limited support, unless it was against Czechoslovakia, Hitler would agree to some kind of economic agreement, but the details were not really discussed. Given the economic output of the two nations, it was almost certain that any agreement would take the form of exchanging Hungarian agricultural goods for German manufactured products. But it would take time for the economic benefits of the new relationship to come to fruition, and it would not be until early 1934 that the two nations would sign a trade agreement, after three years of only a very limited commercial relationship. The structure of the new agreement shifted the relationship from one of import and export of goods by exchanging money to instead a slightly more complicated system where Hungarian businesses would buy Hungarian agricultural products and export them to Germany, where they would then sell them, with the proceeds of those sales then being used to import German goods back to Hungary. This arrangement was initially beneficial to both sides, as it gave an easy avenue for Hungarian agricultural products to be exported, and it also gave Germany an import and export avenue that did not require foreign currency or exchange, which even in the mid 1930s was already a problem for the growing German economy. Taking a slightly longer term view of the agreement, it would cause some problems for Hungary that would have the effect of constraining its ability to choose its own destiny in the back half of the 1930s. Because of the easy exchange of goods between the two nations, and the drastically more advanced German manufacturing industry, some industries in Hungary became wholly dependent on imported German goods. Sometimes this was raw materials that were readily available in Germany, and other times it came in the form of machinery and other precision manufactured goods. These two items were over represented in the armament industries just due to the nature of the work. This dependence on Germany was a negative outcome, but it was probably the easiest path that Hungary had to achieving its rearmament goals.

Meeting those goals would continue to be a challenge into 1934 as the Hungarian economy only very slowly recovered. This caused some reality to enter into Hungarian plans for military expansion. For example, in 1932 the Hungarian Air Force had been aiming for a force of 48 squadrons. However, in 1934 this was cut back due to the realization that maintaining just over a third of that number would continue more than the Hungarian budget was capable of sustaining. Maintenance costs were high, and had to be considered, and also pushed Hungarian arms purchases away from further aircraft acquisition, partially due to the obsolescence of the Italian CR.20s they had purchased. Instead, for 1934 funding was shifted over to the purchase of light tanks, also from Italy. In 1935 aircraft purchases would resume, with both single engine and bombers purchased from Italy. After several tests and discussions, the single engine aircraft would be the CR.32 fighter, while the the bomber would be the Ca.101. Due to the time it took to do the evaluations and decide on what was to be purchased delivery did not really get going until later in 1935, and they almost immediately began to slow down. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia put increasing demands on the Italian armaments industry and therefore deliveries on foreign contracts would slow. The mid-1930s would also represent a turning point for Hungarian military relations with Germany and Italy with both nations extending large lines of credit to Hungary for the purchase of military goods. The Hungarian air force went on something of a spending spree, and ordered 190 German aircraft of various types in July 1936. This included 66 Ju-86 bombers, 36 He-46 fighters, and a variety of other aircraft. 1936 would also mark the point where the Hungarian domestic aviation industry would be able to begin building foreign designs at a reasonable quality. During all of these trade talks, foreign purchases, foreign financial agreements, and ramp up of domestic manufacturing, the Hungarian government was still officially toeing the line that it was obeying the clauses of the Treaty of Trianon, which forbid them to do many of the things they were doing. This would finally end in 1938 when the treaty was officially rejected and open Hungarian rearmament would begin. Which we will discuss next episode.