98: Expansion


As tensions in Europe continued to increase, Hungary would be provided with opportunities to settle its own scores.


  • 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 98 - Hungary Pt. 2 - Expansion. During the 1930s Hungarian foreign policy would be driven by one idea, that if they were working closely with Germany they would be able to benefit from the continued growth of German strength and its continued alteration of the European status quo. This would first manifest in close economic ties with both Italy and Germany with the agreements focused on acquiring the ability to either buy or build modern military hardware and other manufactured goods. Hungary would be able to use its agricultural output as payment for these imports, but during all of these efforts care had to be taken with Hungary still technically being under the constraints of the Treaty of Trianon which had been signed after the First World War. This treaty forbid any expansion of the Hungarian military beyond the small size required for internal security, but after 1927 it was not well enforced and while it would still be in effect for almost another decade the fact that Hungary was rearming was an open secret. In 1938 it would finally be able to remove the constraints after negotiations with several of its neighboring nations. During that same year the overall political situation in Eastern and Central Europe began to rapidly evolve due to the German antagonism of, and then annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement. This would greatly weaken the Little Entente, which was a collection of Eastern European nations that had tried to work together after 1919 in the hopes that their combined power would be capable of mounting a successful resistance against their larger neighbors. During this episode we will look at how Hungary reacted to many of these events during 1938, the growing tensions of 1939, and then the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

At the end of the last episode we discussed how Hungarian foreign policy began to take a decidedly pro-German stance in the early years of the 1930s, and this accelerated once Prime Minister Gombos came to power in 1932. Gombos was a more radical politician than previous Hungarian leaders, although President Horthy and other politicians believed that they could put him on a more moderate path, an endeavor they were not hugely successful at. Gombos had strong support in the military, where many officers were either direct supports of a more fascist approach to government, or were at the very least supporters of foreign governments that were fascist, like in Germany after 1933. After 1936, and the death of Gombos, the Hungarian government abandoned some of the more radical approaches that Gombos advocated for, but from a foreign policy perspective they generally stayed on the same path. For example in 1937 the Hungarian Military would have talks with the German Army leadership around future joint military ventures, with much of the focus being placed on Czechoslovakia. There were other areas that Hungary felt were more important when it came to territorial expansion, but they could only really get support from Germany against Czechoslovakia since that was also an area of German focus. To participate in such military ventures the Hungarian military needed a large boost, and therefore in early 1938 a five year program began with the goal of modernizing the entirety of the military. This program would never fully be completed, partially due to the fact that the European war started much sooner than the Hungarian government or military expected, but it was one of the ways that the military used its influence and its position to push for decisions that would lead Hungary closer to war. This push would become far stronger once Germany invaded Poland, with the military using Germany’s string of early successes as justification for its policy that Hungary should abandon neutrality and entire the conflict.

An important aspect of Hungarian foreign relations would be with the Little Entente. The Little Entente was made up of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania which surrounded Hungary on all sides, and there was a good amount of animosity between Hungary and the other nations, there were serious territorial disputes as well as concerns about future aggression from both sides. During the late 1930s there would be several periods of discussions and negotiations as the representatives from the three other nations attempted to build up a solid base for better relations with Hungary. This was particularly true after Gombos’ death which saw a seemingly less German focused government come to power. What the Little Entente wanted was for Hungary to join in a nonaggression pact, to try and prevent any war in the area for the foreseeable future. Hungary wanted specific concessions from the other nations before it would enter into any such agreement, the most important of which was the right for Hungary to openly enter a period of rearmament. There would also be Hungarian demands for certain concessions that had to be made to the Hungarian minorities in each of the other nations. After some delay and some negotiations the two sides would eventually sign what would be known as the Bled agreement, which is a very complicated series of agreements. The key problem was that Hungary made its pledge for nonaggression dependent on the other nations meeting its demands on the treatment of minorities but only Romania and Yugoslavia would be able to meet those demands. Czechoslovakia would not be able to meet the demands placed upon it, which were stronger than those presented to the other nations. This led to the interesting situation in which Hungary had only really given nonaggression guarantees to Yugoslavia and Romania. But Hungary was not going to attack those nations in the immediate future anyway, because they would not have been supported by Germany. The only nation that they did not sign the nonaggression agreement with was Czechoslovakia, and wouldn’t you know it that was also the only nation that Germany wanted Hungary’s help in attacking. Funny how that works. Overall, these efforts by the four nations were doomed to failure due to political situation that was developing around them. I like this quote from Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918–45 (Encounters) by Stephen L. Renner “All four states were in retrospect hopelessly naive in believing that treaties among them would make any difference at all.”

Much of the surrounding political situation was driven by Germany, and the first target of German aggression would not be Czechoslovakia, but instead Austria. The Hungarian leaders knew that the Anschluss might occur, and in fact their greatest surprise was simply the timing, as they did not believe it would happen so quickly. Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian president, would give a radio address shortly after it occurred to give the official response from the government, and in that speech he would say “For anybody with an open mind and seeing eyes who judges the situation must know that the union of Austria and Germany means only one thing for our country: that an old friend of ours who has been dragged by the peace treaties into an impossible situation has united with another old friend and faithful comrade-in-arms of ours, i.e. with that Germany which in the testimony of history always was a trustworthy ally of her friends, and has kept her pledges for life and death. This is the whole thing. Nothing else happened from our point of view.”. Shortly after the Anschluss occurred, in April 1938, a new and much larger rearmament appropriations bill would be passed through the Hungarian government. This included a massive amount of spending on military hardware and infrastructure spread out over a five year period which would be paid for by a one time tax on property and then large internal loans. To spend this money the Hungarian military leaders would dust off a plan that had originally been written in 1932 and was designed to give the army the ability to rapidly staff up to 250,000 men after the mobilization of reserves. To do this there would be three waves of spending, all covered by the new spending limits that were now unlocked. The first wave would focus on creating and equipping mobile brigades, which would be at the core of the infantry divisions, as well as the creation of some artillery and aviation units. The second wave would be focused on boosting the mechanization of the units and expanding the air squadrons. The third wave would then be spent on filling out the rest of the infantry divisions. The Hungarian air force was ready for this period of expansion, as they had already in early 1938 organized its first Aviation Brigade made up of two bomber regiments and one fighter regiment. But when it came to expanding their squadrons they ran into a problem, it was difficult to buy the preferred aircraft, most of which came from Germany. The Luftwaffe was also in a period of massive expansion and so the Hungarians would find it difficult to get the German manufacturers to actually come through with their orders. This would result in contracts either being unfilled, fulfilled at a massive delay, or just cancelled altogether. One specific example of this happening would be when the Hungarians attempted to have He-112 manufactured by Heinkel and then exported to Hungary. The He 112 had lost the German fighter competition but was able to secure orders from Hungary at least partially due to the fact that it had at one point been the fastest aircraft in the world. This order would be made in the summer of 1938, but the first aircraft would not be delivered until early 1939 before the contract was cancelled by the German Aviation Ministry. In the end it came down to the fact that Hungarian orders were less important than the production demands of the Luftwaffe. Even though Hungary was the largest importer of German aircraft in the last half of the 1930s, it would still only be a small drop in the bucket of total German aviation spending. This was disappointing, but by the time that the first aircraft was delivered there were already some concerns among Hungarian leaders that the He-112 was falling behind other foreign designs, specifically those of Czechoslovakia and France. Unfortunately the delay and then cancellation of the He-112 contract meant that Hungarian pilots were forced to use the Italian Cr.32, which could at least be purchased and imported, but was thought to be even less capable.

Getting aircraft was just one of the problems faced by the Hungarian air force, the other was trying to train up pilots. Piloting aircraft during the 1930s was a very tricky business, and the training for new pilots had to be well considered and executed. When the Hungarian Army High Command commissioned an investigative panel of the overall training infrastructure of the Hungarian Air Force they found the opposite. They found it to be disorganized, using poor equipment, not given enough resources, and generally just of poor quality. This was then directly linked to the fact that during the last months of 1937 and the first half of 1938 there were 64 aircraft accidents. The Air Force was generally criticized for simply trying to expand too quickly, and not giving its organizational and training infrastructure time to adapt to increasing demands. One of the solutions that was found for the problem of training was to send pilots to Italy. In June 1938 200 Hungarian pilots would be sent to Italy for training at the cost of 18 million liras. The first class would begin training in October 1938 and then spend the next 8 months going through the same training that Italian pilots received. The program would be considered a major success, with the added benefit that it came at very little cost to the Hungarian government, because the money spent on the program was just money that had been loaned from Italy in the first place.


While the deliveries of military hardware from Germany were at times disappointing, the political relationship between the two nations did nothing but grow stronger as the years progressed. This would come to a head in August 1938 when Hungary’s president Admiral Horthy and several other political representatives would attend the naval exercises in Kiel Germany. Hungary had only recently signed the Bled agreements with the Little Entente, and Hitler and the Germans were less than thrilled at this development. To try and bring Hungary back into German plans, Hitler would go through the planned German invasion of Czechoslovakia in detail with Admiral Horthy, and then offer the Hungarians a participatory role in exchange for the right to keep any territory they captured. The German expectation was that this would be met with excitement, but the response from Horthy was far less than that. There were many who supported taking more territory from Czechoslovakia, that was not the problem, the problem was the belief that the Hungarian military simply was not ready for such an endeavor. The hesitancy from Hungarian leaders was a problem for Germany, as they hoped to use a border clash between the two nations as the reason for their invasion but with the Hungarian military unwilling to escalate to that level of action, or to be the initiator in a war, German plans had to change. The Hungarian foreign ministry would put increased diplomatic pressure on Czechoslovakia, making even louder and more adamant demands that the Magyar areas of Czechoslovakia be returned, and that Slovakia and Ruthenia be given greater autonomy. Hungary was not part of the negotiations at Munich that lead to the Munich agreement, but it was impacted by them. As part of that agreement there were to be negotiations between Czechoslovakia and other nations to settle outstanding border disputes. The Hungarian foreign ministry seized on this and immediately began to make demands: plebiscites in Slovakia and Ruthenia, the release of Hungarian political prisoners, the right for all Hungarian soldiers to leave the Czechoslovak army. The situation on the border would quickly escalate, with both Hungary and Czechoslovakia mobilizing their militaries. Hungary would call up 300,000 additional soldiers, while negotiations continued to try and establish the basis for further negotiations. From October 19-28 1938 war seemed like a real possibility as the two nations could not come to an agreement before on the 29th they officially invited Germany and Italy to resolve the dispute. Such a decision was never going to go in the favor of Czechoslovakia, but they had both agreed beforehand to accept the decisions made by the two powers. Hungary would gain almost 12,000 square kilometers and about a million citizens. As a good example of why these type of border disputes were so challenging and often led to confrontation, of these 1 million citizens Hungary estimated that about 86% were Magyars, and therefore fit nicely in Hungary, meanwhile the Czechoslovak government estimated the percentage at about 57%. Such a variance in numbers caused the both nations to view the disputed territories very differently but the Hungarian numbers gave the German and Italian representatives the justification for shifting the border.

One of the topics not covered by what would be known as the First Vienna Award was the area of eastern Czechoslovakia known as Ruthenia. This had caused some frustration in the Hungarian government, and there were even discussions of launching an invasion. They reached out to Italy, who decided that the area was not important to it, to Germany who warned them very specifically not to, and they also reached out to Poland, in the hopes that it could be a Hungarian and Polish joint attack from the south and the north. In late 1938 and early 1939 Poland was looking to settle its own territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia, and splitting Ruthenia with Hungary would have served both national interests quite well, but in this case it would not happen, due to Poland not wanting to commit the forces required. While many of these events brought Hungary closer to Germany in the area of foreign relations, there was also beginning to be shifts within domestic Hungarian politics to mirror what had already happened in Germany. The perfect example of this was the Second Anti-Jewish law that was signed in March 1939, this law expanded on an earlier law and further reduced the ability of Jews to participate in certain professions. This law was introduced by Foreign Minister Imredy, who was one of those who held the strongest pro-German sentiments. Also in March 1939 events in Ruthenia would develop very quickly. On March 12th, just a few days before they would invade Czechoslovakia, the Hungarian minister in Berlin was informed that the operation would be happening soon, and that Hungary would have 23 hours to move into and take Ruthenia before it became a German possession. The initial plan war for this invasion to be launched on March 18th, but planning had to be accelerated after the March 14th declaration of Slovakian independence. This meant that on March 15th, the Hungarian invasion would begin, the same day that the Germans also moved on Prague.

The invasion would be launched with the troops that were available in the area in march 1939, although there would be a wider mobilization as well, including that of the Royal Hungarian Air Force, which had been made an independent military arm at the beginning of 1939. The Hungarian military was in no way prepared for any kind of large military operation, and they were less than a year into their originally planned five year military expansion program. That program had been accelerated, but there were limited to what could be done given Hungarian resources and their dependence on importing most complex military equipment. Fortunately they would not really be tested during their invasion of Czechoslovakia. The invasion would be launched with 6 brigades of troops, three infantry, one motorized, one cavalry, and one bicycle. They would also be supported by several aviation groups, including two Bomber groups flying Ju-86s, one group of CR.32 fighters, as well as several reconnaissance squadrons. The readiness of any of these troops for action would not really be tested, because after the invasion began little resistance was encountered. Some air units were used to attack Czechoslovak troop formations, but much like the German invasion from the West, most of the time spent in the invasion was simply moving troops forward until they reached the Polish border, which they would reach just a few days later on March 17. The casualties for the operation were just 220. After marching north to reach Poland, Hungarian forces were reoriented to begin marching West and into Slovakia. The Hungarian did recognize that the new Slovakian stage existed, and that it should be independent, but it also had some thoughts on where its eastern border with Hungary should be. And since that was not a settled matter, the goal was to try and capture as much territory as possible before the German government made them stop, to provide a better negotiating position. There would then be clashes between Hungarian and Slovak units during this advance westward. In the air Slovak air units would attempt to attack the Hungarian Army, but they would lose several planes to anti-aircraft fire, with more damaged. This would repeat the following day on March 24th, with continued Hungarian advances and Slovak resistance. Also on the 24th the Hungarian Air Force would gain first hand experience at something that many air forces would over the next two years when they tried to launching a bombing raid on a Slovak air field near Iglo. The original plan was for two squadrons of Ju-86 bombers to launch the raid in the afternoon on March 24th. The two squadrons would take off from different air fields before meeting up to proceed to the target, and basically everything would go wrong. It was late in the day, and the planes were not equipped or trained for night operations, and they were also trying to carry bomb loads that were too large, which caused issues on the air fields that had experienced heavy recent rainfall. The Second bomber Group would not even participate, as they were slow getting their aircraft off the ground, and then when they stopped to refuel at a different airfield along the way, they were too late to participate at all and did not take off. The 10 bombers that did manage to get to the target were able to drop their bombs about 2 hours after the planned for time, and they were able to damage 12 Slovak aircraft. With at least some bombers reaching the target, the raid was technically a success, but post-raid evaluations were far less kind, pointing out that the raid against Iglo showcased a lengthy list of deficiencies around planning and preparation. There were far more favorable evaluations of both some of the aircraft that were used, as well as the performance of Hungarian fighter units. Against the aircraft that they faced like the Avia B. 534 biplane, the Italian CR.32 fighter had performed very well, and in fact Hungary would later take control of 36 additional CR.32 fighters that had been in the Austrian Air Force at the the time of the Anschluss. Overall the invasion was a good learning experience for the Hungarian military in a situation in which there was little resistance and little risk of failure.

During the spring and summer of 1939, as tensions continued to reach new heights around Europe and war seemed to constantly become more likely, Hungary would tie itself closer to Germany. It would join the Anti-Comintern Pact in February, it would exit the League of Nations in April. The Hungarian government was generally in line with everything Germany was doing, except for one thing, the possible invasion of Poland. Hungary would refuse to participate or be the launching pad for any invasion of Poland, which the German leaders were not big fans of. Hungary and Poland were on very good relations, and the two nations would continue to have close relations even after the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact was announced which included a German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact. The two smaller nations were on such good terms that one of the driving factors behind the Hungarian government wanting to take control of Ruthenia was to allow the two nations to have a shared border. Hitler would not push Hungary very harshly on the Polish matter, at least partially due to the Soviet Union being willing to cooperate with the upcoming action against Poland. After the invasion began, many Polish military units and civilians would escape into Hungary, with Hungary keeping the border open throughout the entire German invasion campaign, and then long after which allowed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, pilots, and refugees to make their way out of Poland and first into Hungary and then to other nations, with many of the soldiers heading to Britain and France. With war being declared the Hungarian government would redouble their rearmament efforts in late 1939, with much of the focus being on the Air Force and Air Defense, with the top priorities being an expansion of air strength, acquiring more tanks, and boosting anti-aircraft defenses. Throughout 1940 the primary focus of Hungarian military preparations were aimed at Romania, with the hope being that Transylvania could be retaken and incorporated into Hungary. The resolution would once again be German arbitration, with strict guidance from Berlin that a military campaign should not be launched. In August 1940 44,000 square kilometers and 2.5 million people would be awarded to Hungary. That is where we will end Hungary’s story for now, although we will revisit the country and its actions in the run up to Operation Barbarossa as it found its autonomy slowly reduced by the needs of the German war effort.