Key Point: An ally of Hitler, Horthy eventually decided on an armistice with Joseph Stalin to prevent a Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The career of Admiral Nicholas Horthy spanned not only two world wars, but also stretched across the decades from the age of sail to atomic-powered submarines. He witnessed the fall of Europe’s oldest dynasties during 1917-1919, the rise of dictatorships to replace them, and the advent and then collapse of fascism as well.
His own country, Hungary, twice fell victim to Soviet revolution and foreign occupation, and he lived long enough to witness the aborted Hungarian Revolt of 1956. Although he did not survive to see her free once more, this salty sailor predicted that Hungary would emerge again in his post-World War II memoirs.
He was one of only two of Adolf Hitler’s former Axis partners in Europe to survive World War II. Both Benito Mussolini of Italy and Marshal Ion Antonescu of Romania were executed by the communists, while King Boris of Bulgaria died of a mysterious heart attack in 1943. Croatian strongman Dr. Ante Pavelic, like Admiral Horthy, escaped.
Nicholas Horthy outlived them all as the deposed regent of Hungary, a former Imperial Austro-Hungarian Navy commander in chief who was head of state in a landlocked nation virtually without a fleet. A reluctant politician who had been first a career sailor all his life, Horthy had served as aide-de-camp to the Dual Monarchy’s Kaiser Franz Joseph for the five years preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
In that capacity, he rubbed shoulders with kings, sultans, and the emperor of Germany, and later would hobnob with Victor Emmanuel III of the House of Savoy, Pope Pius XII, and the Führer of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler who dominated the last years of Horthy’s 25-year regency, and Horthy thus has come down to history as a mere vassal to Hitler, but he was much more than that.
From Naval Cadet to Elected Dictator
Horthy rose from being an unknown naval cadet at Pola on the Adriatic Sea in the 1880s to command the Austro-Hungarian fleet in 1918. He was appointed to that post by Austria’s last Emperor, Kaiser Karl I, a man whose return to power he would thwart in 1921. Forced to surrender his proud, undefeated vessels to newly formed Yugoslavia on October 31, 1918, Horthy saw his naval career give way to one in a field he had always avoided, politics.
Within just a few months, the victor of the Battle of Otranto would be acclaimed as the national hero of his native land for the liberation of Budapest from the communist takeover led by Bela Kun. And as the elected regent of Hungary, he would reside in the former royal palace in the formidable Burgberg. Offered the crown himself, Admiral Horthy refused it, preferring to rule instead as an elected dictator. He was one of the few admirals in history who came to office at the head of an army rather than a fleet.
Caught between two powerful neighbors, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Horthy’s Hungary threw in her lot with the Nazis against the Bolsheviks when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but was seeking a way out of the conflict as early as the following year, convinced that the Third Reich would lose the war. Reportedly, Horthy was one of the few foreign leaders whom Hitler respected, and why not? By the time Hitler was born, Horthy was already an Imperial Navy officer.
While Hitler was an unknown corporal in the trenches on the Western Front in 1917, the admiral was the naval hero of Austria-Hungary, and when the demobilized future Führer was a struggling politician in Bavaria, Nicholas Horthy was elected regent by a landslide vote of 131 out of 141 ballots cast in the parliament at Budapest.
Moreover, Hitler only traveled to countries he occupied, while mariner Horthy had long since sailed the oceans of the world. Thus, both before and during World War II the crusty sailor stood up to Hitler in a way that few Axis Pact partners dared. In return, the Führer may have murdered the regent’s first son. He did send SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny to kidnap the second son, occupied Hungary with nine German divisions late in 1944, and imprisoned the deposed regent, his former ally, in a Bavarian castle.
It was there that the 78-year-old admiral narrowly escaped execution by SS bullets in the spring of 1945 when the U.S. Army liberated the Horthy family outside Munich. Protected from extradition on Josip Broz Tito’s demand to stand trial in Yugoslavia for alleged war crimes, the regent instead was saved by the American government to testify as a witness in both 1945 and 1948 at the war crimes trials conducted in Nuremberg by the International Military Tribunal.
Over the course of his rich and varied life, Horthy had married the best dancer he ever met, hunted tigers in Borneo, seen the Himalayas, gotten drunk in Spanish ports, and survived a 70-foot fall from the mast of an Austrian training ship. His life was truly an epic.
“Above Life Stands Duty”
It was an unusual saga, beginning with his birth in Hungary in 1868 to a family of landed gentry tracing its lineage back several centuries. Young Horthy’s dream was almost instantly to go to sea as a career sailor, but it almost was not realized because an older brother had died at the Imperial Navy’s Academy at Pola. In 1882, his parents reluctantly granted him permission to seek entrance.
Years later, Horthy recalled that of 612 applicants to the academy only 42 were admitted as officer candidates, and of those only 27 were later commissioned. The future admiral adopted as his own lifelong slogan the motto of the naval academy: “Above Life Stands Duty.”
As a graduated midshipman, young Horthy was assigned to the Winter Squadron flagship Radetzky, a frigate named after a famous Austrian Army field marshal. The ships were still powered by sails, with steam boilers hardly ever stoked, including the armor-clad vessels. Skippers who still felt more comfortable sailing thus preferred going into harbors under sail, rather than employing the newer steam power of a more modern era.
The future regent graduated from sailing vessels to torpedo boats and would later command both armored cruisers and battleships as well. Overall, his many voyages over the course of 36 years would take him to England, France, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Malta, Gibraltar, Tunisia, Greece, Egypt, Somalia, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Italy, and the Solomon Islands, to name but a few places.
Horthy joined the torpedo service of the Imperial Navy, preferring it, he said, to the other three possibilities: the desk-bound naval staff, minelaying, and heavy surface units. Staying ever longer on sea exercises, it meant faster and more promotions, Horthy later asserted.
A Swift Rise Through the Ranks
Following his command of both a training ship and the school that prepared young boys as future naval petty officers, Horthy found himself serving as a government translator in Vienna. He translated the naval budget from German into Hungarian for the joint parliamentary review in Budapest, as provided for in the 1867 constitution between Hungary and Austria.
Shortly afterward, he met his future wife, Magda Purgly, at a dance, and they were married on July 21, 1901. The happy union would endure war, revolution, overthrow, arrest, and exile, as well as having their homes looted by Romanians, Hungarians, and Russians.
Horthy’s rise in the Navy was swift. From skippering a torpedo boat, he next commanded a destroyer flotilla, and then the battleship Habsburg, flagship of the fleet’s Mediterranean Squadron, before World War I. One of his colleagues in the Navy was another admiral, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who insisted on promoting the offensive capabilities of the Imperial Navy, not only its role as a coastal defense force. It was he whose assassination at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, touched off the Balkan powder keg, which soon spread to a general European conflict.
Aide-de-Camp to Franz Joseph
Horthy was twice stationed at Constantinople in Turkey, where he witnessed the famous Young Turk rising that overthrew the old sultan. When Austria took advantage of the crisis and annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Turks responded by boycotting and seizing imported Austrian commercial goods as well as refusing to allow cargo to be unloaded. Since Turkey was Austria’s main customer for exports, Horthy decided to act to break the impasse.
When the nervous Austrian ambassador asked what Horthy would do if fired upon, he coolly replied that he would return the fire, even if it meant war. All went well, however, Horthy recalled in the 1950s, as the Kurds declined to fight. The sailor had learned that bold, decisive action provided results, a lesson he remembered during World War I.
This action as well as his reports to Vienna on the Young Turks brought him to the attention of the aged Emperor Franz Joseph, and in 1909 Horthy was named the monarch’s naval aide-de-camp, a high point in his celebrated career.