Listen to the audio cast: A Second Stalingrad – Introduction to the Siege of Budapest Tour
Welcome to the Budapest World War II tour. Imagine that you are standing on the banks of the Danube in Pest, just upriver from the famous Chain Bridge. From here you are looking across the river to the hills of Buda and the historic Castle District, a World Heritage site. If you had been standing in this same place a little less than seventy years ago, beautiful Buda would have looked very different. It was in total ruin following the siege of this great city. Budapest had just suffered through one of the longest sieges of the Second World War. In the fighting that took place, approximately 80,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or wounded, up to 40,000 Hungarian and German soldiers were killed, wounded or captured and at least that many civilians also lost their lives. The carnage of the siege is often forgotten, but that makes it no less horrific.
When the Second World War is discussed, events such as the siege of Leningrad, the firebombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, the Battles for Stalingrad and Berlin get much of the attention. Much of this focus is well deserved. All of these were major historical events that proved to be of great importance to the war’s outcome. Yet during this tour you are going to learn about the little known and even less talked about Siege of Budapest that took place during the winter of 1944-45. This battle was just as ferocious, terrifying and destructive as the more iconic events of the war.
In the coming days and weeks you will be learning how the Battle of Budapest serves as a microcosm of the destructive nature of the Second World War. The fighting which took place here in the depths of a harsh winter deserves to be remembered as an example of the violence and suffering as well as the courage and will to survive that were hallmarks of the conflict. Astonishingly, all the events that occurred with such horrifying effect over five and a half years across the whole of Europe, were mirrored in fifty-one days of ferocious combat right here in the Hungarian capital. The depravities of the siege and ultra-violent nature of urban combat brought the infernal fires of warfare to a civilian population that would experience a whole new level of suffering.
Along the wide boulevards of Pest, amidst the winding streets of Buda, across the industrial island of Csepel, all the horrors of the Second World War were acted out in the city. At siege’s end, the icy waters of the Danube was tinged red with the blood of Hungarian, German and Soviet soldiers along with scores of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
A few moments ago some of the seminal events of the war were mentioned, let’s now look at how the siege of Budapest mirrors them. Aerial Bombardment: The city was targeted by the same strategic bombing that the allies had used to great effect at most notably Hamburg and Dresden. The monumental architecture and beautiful structures in the city known as “the Pearl of the Danube” were not spared.
The Holocaust: a cataclysmic experience for European Jewry, was no less so in Budapest. Ironically, the Jews of Budapest were relatively safe until late 1944. Yet when thousands were finally deported, the Nazi killing machine had been refined to the point where it took them away faster and in greater numbers than those who had perished before. For those Jews left in the city during the siege, many would meet a terrible fate along the banks of the Danube.
Who among us has not heard of the urban warfare and vicious street fighting in that epic, defining battle at Stalingrad which turned the tide of war against the German Army. The same type of urban warfare was visited upon Budapest just a year and a half later, leaving almost three-fourths of the city in ruin. One German soldier called the battle a “second Stalingrad.”
Or what about the siege of Leningrad, with a population reduced to starvation and forced to make a choice, either living in the most primitive conditions or death in a frozen hell. Yes the citizens of Budapest suffered in much the same manner, not for a thousand days, but just a little over fifty. Yet at siege’s end their lot would not be victory, but defeat and life under a new conqueror.
Admittedly, all this sounds very bleak, but today Budapest is once again the Pearl of the Danube. It has recovered rather well, considering the trauma of the siege. The city has retaken its place among the great cities of Europe. Certainly the grandeur of Budapest has been scarred, but in many ways this adds to the mystery and intrigue of its history. It is this history which still speaks to us today. Across the decades, we hear the echo of not only the voices of suffering, but also of survival. And perhaps it is the act of survival that best defines Budapest. It has outlived the destruction of the siege and today survives as a testament to the will and pride of the Hungarian people.
Once again, welcome to the Budapest World War II tour.
Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006