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Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Krisztin Ungvry
Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2005

One of the publishing events of the past year was Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies. It was in every way a work worthy of his reputation as one of our most respected historians of Poland. An intensely researched, vividly written account, Rising ’44 dealt with the heroic but doomed attempt by the Polish Home Army to liberate its capital city just before the arrival of the Red Army on the banks of the Vistula. The casualties included thousands of Warsaw’s valiant fighters, hundreds of thousands of civilians and the city itself, much of which was pounded into rubble by the Germans. In the end, a war that had begun to keep Poland free surrendered the country to Soviet occupation and Communist tyranny. After 1945 the entire affair fell into the Stalinist memory hole. With the Communist government of Poland condemning the Home Army as reactionaries and criminals, the entire subject was taboo. Indeed, Davies’ book could not have been written before the fall of communism.

Many of these same things can be said of Krisztián Ungváry’s The Siege of Budapest. Once again we have a serious scholar tackling a subject that has not garnered anywhere near the attention it deserves. Once again we have the Red Army seemingly irresistible in the advance, the Wehrmacht resisting desperately and enough death and destruction to turn even the strongest of stomachs. And once again we have the martyrdom of a great city, yet another historic European capital blown to smithereens. Ungváry’s research is almost completely new, based heavily on testimony from Hungarian participants who could talk only after the fall of communism. For all these reasons, Siege of Budapest makes an eerily perfect companion volume to Rising ’44, and deserves the widest possible readership.

It is at this point that the similarities end, however. The crucial difference between the two books is that Hungary was not fighting on the side of liberty. Instead, it was an Axis partner, one of the small powers that had aligned itself with Germany in the course of the war and fought on the Eastern Front alongside the Wehrmacht. When the chickens of military disaster came home to roost after Stalingrad, Hungary found itself on Stalin’s hit list, along with other unfortunates like Finland and Romania.

Moreover, by the time the city came under attack in December 1944, the highest drama had already passed. As the front had moved closer to Hungary earlier in the year, the government, in the person of Regent Miklós Horthy, tried to open channels of negotiation with the Western Allies. The Germans responded by clamping down on their wavering ally, occupying the entire country. Not coincidentally they also rounded up, deported and murdered most of the Hungarian Jewry, until that moment the last national Jewish community of any size still extant in Nazi-occupied Europe. Then, in October 1944, the Horthy government actually tried to abandon the Axis and take Hungary out of the war. The Germans again responded quickly, arresting the regent within hours and replacing him with a friendly regime under Ferenc Szálasi, the head of the Arrow Cross movement — the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazis.

As a result, Ungváry’s portrait of the siege of Budapest is necessarily a story without heroes. The Germans exhibit all the traits an informed reader should expect of them by this point in the war. They are brutal to their own, to their enemies and to their allies without discrimination. They are also mired in that hopeless bureaucratic muddle that is so characteristic of the latter years of the war, with the Wehrmacht, SS Police and Waffen-SS all claiming primacy of jurisdiction within Hungary. Ungváry follows contemporary German scholarship, that of Hans Mommsen in particular, by describing Nazi rule as “polycratic,” that is, featuring contending centers of power at odds with one another. The term probably lends the situation more dignity than it deserves; simply calling it a mess would be more like it. The Red Army fights with its typical combination of ingenuity, ferocity and an utter lack of concern for friendly casualties — it alternates between highly skilled and hopelessly clumsy.

The Hungarian army, battling on home soil and in defense of the national capital, and thus presumably with the most at stake, was utterly fought out by this point in the war. Not particularly well-equipped to begin with, the Hungarians had already lost the cream of their army deep inside the Soviet Union. Their German ally’s habit of cutting them completely out of the decision-making loop cannot have helped their already shaky morale. Neither could the handful of mostly obsolescent tanks that made up much of their armored force.

Ungváry spends a great deal of effort reconstructing the military action. By and large he succeeds, at least on the operational level. The Red Army’s understrength, on-the-fly attempt in late autumn 1944 to break into the city that failed; the much better planned and almost effortless encirclement of the city by two Soviet fronts in December, a classic, and by now well-rehearsed, example of Soviet “operational art”; the abortive German relief attempts in January (Operations Konrad I through Konrad III); the calamitous breakout attempt in February 1945 and the subsequent fall of the city — all of these receive a very clear exposition.

Once the Soviets break into Budapest, however, things get a bit stickier. The level of tactical detail is extremely high and there will be times when the reader will have to know the precise locations of towns like Csömör, Fót and Pestújhely or terrain features like Kis-Svàb-hegy or Rózsadomb Hill in order to follow the author’s narrative. I will not be the only reader who did not find this an easy task.

Beyond operations and tactics, however, Ungváry portrays the confusion of an urban population suddenly thrown into the front lines of modern war. The encirclement of the city, a neatly executed pincer of 2nd Ukrainian Front from the north and 3rd Ukrainian Front coming up in a wide circle from the south, happened so rapidly that it took the residents of Budapest completely by surprise and in the midst of their Christmas preparations. As incredible as it sounds, Soviet assault units with submachine guns at the ready actually broke into a surprised crowd of civilians waiting for a train in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve. The same thing happened several hours later a few stops up the line, with Soviet infantry shocking a crowd full of families loaded down with Christmas presents. Due to the swiftness of the encirclement, the civilian population of Budapest, some 1 million people, would be present for every minute of the horrible fighting to come. They hid in the same buildings that the armies were fighting over, and they tried desperately to keep out of the way. Sometimes they succeeded, but failure almost always had fatal consequences. If Soviet artillery fire or German machine guns didn’t kill you, it seems that there were 1,001 ways to run afoul of the Arrow Cross regime. This was especially true if you happened to be Jewish, although Ungváry shows that the thugs of the Arrow Cross bullied, tortured and killed many others, apparently for the sheer love of it. In World War II’s “Hall of Shame,” there should be a special wing devoted to these sadistic fanatics. The arrival of the Soviets, who as always made their entry with lootings, shootings and the gang-rape of virtually every woman they could get their hands on, would put a highly ironic spin on the word “liberation.”

The book is not perfect. The extremely long final chapter, dealing with civilian life during the siege, sprawls to 117 pages and comes close to unbalancing the entire volume. More judicious editing here might have cut it down significantly, and so would paring the author’s tendency to include huge extracts of first-person testimony. The discussion of the resistance groups within Budapest (that is, resistance to the Arrow Cross regime and the Germans) at times offers little more than a tedious list of one group after another, with only a sentence or two of explanation. The urban maps are altogether inadequate to follow the action, especially the nitty-gritty of the grinding battle within Buda (the portion of the city on the western side of the Danube).

Notwithstanding these problems, The Siege of Budapest is an important book. It restores a forgotten but epic episode to its rightful place in the history of the war, and it does so without imparting any false sheen of heroism to anyone involved in it. How could there be? With the Nazis, the Soviets and the Arrow Cross contending for supremacy, the reader will be hard-pressed to root for anyone. And what of the Hungarian army? As Ungváry argues eloquently, if ever there was an example of “senseless sacrifice,” it was that of the Hungarian units fighting in Budapest. It is a sweet and fitting thing for an army to defend its homeland, of course, but all that these forgotten soldiers did was to play the part of extras in the drama of Budapest’s destruction.