Just after lunchtime, on June 26, 1941, three unidentified planes appeared in the clear skies above the Hungarian city of Kassa (today Kosice, Slovakia). They soon let loose a stream of bombs on the unsuspecting city, civilians ran for cover as the bombs exploded. In just a few minutes the attack was over, over a dozen people had been wounded and some minor damage had been sustained at several buildings, most prominently the post office. It was a quick strike, over with almost as fast as it had occurred. Yet though the bombing may have been brief, its ramifications were long lasting. The next day, Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union, ostensibly over the attack. It was a fateful decision, the consequences of which would be felt for decades to come.
Few events in 20th century Hungarian history, loom as large as the bombing of Kassa (Kosice, Slovakia) on June 26, 1941. The disastrous consequences which eventually would flow from this incident, seem out of all proportion to the size and scale of the bombing. The attack damaged some buildings and caused minor civilian casualties in a city that Hungary had only regained two years before. This after Kassa had been part of Czechoslovakia for nearly twenty years. Kassa was considered by Hungarians to have been theirs all along, but it was a provincial city of only peripheral importance to the nation. More symbolic than strategic.
Assigning Blame or Seeking to Understand
Intriguingly, historians have not been able to pinpoint who actually was responsible for the bombing. There are questions as to whether it was a conspiracy formulated and carried out by the Germans, an attack by the Soviets or perhaps even the Romanians. The bombing of Kassa has become one of Hungarian history’s most intriguing whodunits. Both academic and armchair historians have spent countless hours trying to solve this mystery. By doing so, they have overlooked an even more important question, namely why. Why would Hungary enter the Second World War over what seems retrospectively to have been an incident that could just as easily have been brushed aside. The focus on who carried out the attack while of interest, is little more than an attempt to retroactively assign blame. Conversely, seeking to answer the question why helps us better understand the fateful decision to go to war.
One way to get at the why, is to understand Hungary’s geostrategic position at the time of the attack. The Hungarian leadership must have been rather happy with itself over the string of successes during the lead up to and early part of the war. They had regained several historically important territories that had been lost in the Treaty of Trianon, the post-World War I peace settlement. Among these were southern Slovakia, northern Transylvania and northern Serbia. These had been regained with minimal military effort. They had literally been “gifts” from the Germans. Yet territorial “gifts” from Hitler always came with a cost. A minor cost inflicted at the time, with larger payments due at some ominous future point.
A Dangerous Game
Hungary’s major interwar foreign policy goal – some might say their only goal – was to reverse the taking of traditional Hungarian lands in the Trianon settlement. If this meant throwing in their lot with the Nazis, well then so be it. After all, the Allies were the ones who had inflicted Trianon on the Magyar nation. The Hungarians were playing a very dangerous, exceedingly complex game. The question seems to be how far they could go in meeting German demands, while still staying out of the war. It was a classic historical case of the Hungarians wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to avoid getting involved in the war while keeping their territorial gains.
What may well have tipped the country into war was strangely enough not direct German pressure, but instead indirect pressure from their main rivals. Both Slovakia and Romania were supporting the Germans. Romania for one, reportedly dispatched ten divisions to assist Germany in their invasion of the Soviet Union. They also provided a critical source of petroleum for the German war effort. Such assistance might very well mean that Germany would favor the Romanians in territorial disputes with the Hungarians. The risk that this might occur meant that Hungary had little choice, but to end up fighting with Germany on the Eastern Front if they wanted to keep all the land they had gained over the past three years.
If Not Kassa Then…
The bombing of Kassa gave Hungary a convenient reason to enter the war. If not the bombing of Kassa than it would most likely have been something else, sooner rather than later, that precipitated Hungary’s entry into the war. The Hungarian leadership would not stomach a loss of their territorial gains. Ironically, it turned out to be a city in the lands lost due to Trianon which provided the rationalization for going to war. It was not so much the Germans, as it was the shame of Trianon that led the Hungarians to declare war. There is history and then there is deep history. History was made due to what happened in Kassa on June 26, 1941, that was the history of the moment. Yet the history of Hungarian involvement in the Second World War has its roots deeper than any one bombing incident. The Hungarians were led into the war by their single minded focus to keep their revisions to Trianon. This was the undertow that pulled them down into the depths.
Trianon was truly a disaster for Hungary and not just at the time it was signed, but also decades later. Both loss and recovery of the lands proscribed by the treaty led to disastrous policies. The major difference between the outcomes is that following the First World War and the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was still a sizable, independent mid-sized nation. After the Second World War, Hungary was still a nation, back to its original inter-war borders, but it was no longer independent. It would now be a vassal of the Soviet Union for decades to come. This was the ultimate cost of entering the war on Germany’s side and trying to recover and keep the traditional lands of the Hungarian Kingdom.