Horthy Consolidates Power in Hungary Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Admiral Miklós Horthy led a right-wing government to power in Hungary amid tremendous civil strife and foreign intervention. He then ruled Hungary for more than twenty years and steered the country into the Axis camp before World War II.

Summary of Event

In 1919, Hungary was a completely new nation-state. It was created only in the wake of World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period with the destruction of the Habsburg Empire, which had absorbed the large and powerful Kingdom of Hungary in 1526. This new state was in the throes of several crises, ranging from the need to recover from the the damage of the long war and gross foreign manipulation to protracted wrangling over its borders and its new system of government. At the end of World War I, Hungary was ruled by Count Mihály Károlyi, Károlyi, Mihály who had been appointed to carry out certain reforms by the last emperor, Karl I. Károlyi was deeply disturbed by the victors’ emerging plans greatly to reduce Hungary’s traditional size and population in order to give territory and population to the other new nation-states situated around it. There was also considerable unrest among the country’s peasants, workers, and returning soldiers. Hungary, Horthy regime [kw]Horthy Consolidates Power in Hungary (Nov. 16, 1919) [kw]Hungary, Horthy Consolidates Power in (Nov. 16, 1919) Hungary, Horthy regime [g]Hungary;Nov. 16, 1919: Horthy Consolidates Power in Hungary[04860] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 16, 1919: Horthy Consolidates Power in Hungary[04860] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 16, 1919: Horthy Consolidates Power in Hungary[04860] Horthy, Miklós Kun, Béla

Before it could address any of these issues, however, Károlyi’s government gave way in March, 1919, to a group of communists and socialists led by the Moscow-trained revolutionary Béla Kun. The Hungarian Soviet (or Socialist) Republic only lasted 133 days, but it severely damaged the country. From the communist point of view, the Károlyi government had represented the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and the time was right to begin nationalizing Hungary’s industry and collectivizing its agricultural resources, as well as engaging in a host of less radical reforms. Conservative Hungarians and the victorious allies were mortified. Kun’s government instituted the “Red Terror,” a program of summary justice aimed at supposed opponents of the communist regime, which alienated many Hungarians and invited an extremist reaction from the right. Furthermore, Kun’s radicalism and his ties to the Soviets prompted the Allies, still sitting in judgment of Hungary during the long preparations of the Treaty of Trianon, to encourage the forces of neighboring states to destabilize Hungary. The resulting incursions, especially the long Romanian occupation of Budapest, left Hungary further humiliated and plundered.

The was the background to the rise to power of Miklós Horthy. Horthy was born on June 18, 1868, into a Calvinist (Protestant) noble family in Kenderes, a small town southeast of the Hungarian capital of Budapest. He had already distinguished himself as an admiral and adviser to Emperor Franz Josef, and upon his return to Hungary, Horthy joined the counterrevolutionary, or “White,” government based in the southern city of Szeged. The forces of this government opposed the Hungarian socialist (or “Red”) government that had seized power in Budapest. Horthy became the Whites’ overall military commander. His forces eventually numbered fifty thousand. After Kun fled to Austria in early August, Horthy occupied much of Hungary, but it took the Allies until November to force the Romanians to leave Budapest and to decide to work with Horthy’s Christian National Unity Party.

When Horthy entered Budapest at the head of his army on November 16, 1919, he was riding a white horse. This was a gesture laden with historical symbolism for Hungarians: He was deliberately invoking one thousand years of images of Árpád, the equestrian warrior who had begun the Hungarian state along the Danube River. Two decades later, Horthy and the white horse would again be in evidence when he occupied the territories Adolf Hitler granted to Hungary in the First and Second Vienna Awards. Horthy organized a new government under Károly Huszár and was soon elected “temporary regent” of the country by the new National Assembly in March, 1920. Horthy’s political views were extremely conservative, and he became a stalwart nationalist in independent Hungary, even though he had been a devoted monarchist for the duration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He also straddled the divide between social conservative and right-radical, giving succor and opportunities to fascist movements at home and abroad but not adopting fascism himself. As the Hungarian journalist and historian Paul Lendvai has noted, Horthy’s government was socially conservative, anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, and autocratic.

On June 4, 1920, the Hungarians had to accept the Treaty of Trianon. Trianon, Treaty of (1920) In addition to the drastic border changes it enacted, this treaty (as the Treaty of Versailles did to Germany) placed restrictions on Hungary’s military, forced the country to pay an indemnity, and skewed its economic structure. Most ominously, Hungary had lost an enormous proportion of its traditional holdings: 70 percent of its territory and 60 percent of its population. The latter figure included 28 percent of the population of native Hungarian speakers. Those speakers now found themselves minorities in Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, separated from their motherland by the borders of the new map of Europe drawn by the British, French, and American victors in World War I.

The Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, as the traditional Hungarian territories were known, had always been very multiethnic. As a result of the desire of the Allies to punish Hungary for being on the losing side of the Great War and of their efforts to reward and stabilize Hungary’s neighbors, a “small Hungary” was created. The sense of outrage at being robbed of the right to self-determination turned interwar Hungary into a revisionist or revanchist state, eager to regain lost lands (even those in which Hungarians were not a majority of the population) by any means necessary. This general atmosphere made Horthy’s autocracy possible, and it predisposed him to cooperate later with Hitler on foreign policy issues.

Meanwhile, in domestic politics, Karl I, who had ruled under the Habsburg system as King Károly IV in Hungary, returned from exile twice in 1921 and attempted to install himself as monarch; both times, Horthy rebuffed him, partly because Allied reaction was vehemently negative and partly to protect his own power. Horthy, over the next twenty-four years as a regent with no king in sight, also held at bay Hungary’s fascists, again partly to avoid being sidelined by them but also because his views were not as extreme as were theirs. The country enjoyed some economic growth under Horthy, but the democratic system eroded severely.


The struggle for power in postwar Hungary led to “red scares” around Europe because of the temporary success of Kun’s revolutionaries. Horthy’s struggle against Kun, however, was significantly blemished by a “White terror,” or persecution of potential opponents and minorities, that took five thousand lives and saw seventy thousand arrests. Horthy’s rule then provided stability to the newly created but war-ravaged state of Hungary after 1920, especially during the ten-year administration of Prime Minister Gábor Bethlen (1921-1931). Indeed, compared with other countries across the continent, Horthy’s reign was one of the longest in an interwar period marked by great tumult. Nonetheless Horthy also courted trouble in many ways: Hungary instituted the first discriminatory laws against Jews after World War I, the regent became ever more authoritarian, and he moved ever closer to Hitler’s orbit, accepting the latter’s offer of territory from Czechoslovakia and Romania. Horthy eventually steered his country into an alliance with the Axis and helped attack the Soviet Union in 1944. Hungary, Horthy regime

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borsanyi, György. The Life of a Communist Revolutionary, Béla Kun. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 1993. The most extensive study of the struggle that catapulted Horthy to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horthy, Miklos. Memoirs. London: Hutchinson, 1956. Horthy’s own account of his life, orginally written in German during his exile in Portugal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lendvai, Paul. The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. An engaging and comprehensive history of Hungary by a journalist of considerable standing. Very competent as an overview and well-spiced with anecdotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sakmyster, Thomas. Hungary’s Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy, 1918-1944. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1994. The most comprehensive work on Horthy’s life and reign in English, this extensive work draws on many primary sources. Its author is a well-known scholar on Hungary between the two world wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugar, Peter E., ed. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. The best scholarly history of Hungary, well written and richly documented by a team of mostly Hungarian scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tökés, Rudolf. Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic: The Origins and Role of the Communist Party of Hungary in the Revolutions of 1918-1919. New York: Praeger, 1967. The first major study in English of the power struggle between Horthy and Kun, written by a well-known scholar in Hungarian interwar history.

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Categories: History