In the late summer of 1977 Dr. Geza Nagy took his last breath. Nagy died deep in the Smoky Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, thousands of miles away from where he was born in the uplands of northwestern Hungary. His final job was as a professor of history at Western Carolina University. Nagy was one of countless ethnic Hungarians who had fled westward in the aftermath of World War II. In Nagy’s case, it was the Communist takeover of Hungary which set his life on a wandering and wayward course which led him first to Canada and then the United States. An obituary for Nagy printed in the Sylva Herald and Ruralite on August 18, 1977 sketched an outline of his life:
“A native of Damak, Hungary and a resident of Cullowhee for the past 15 years, he was educated at Heidelburg and Sorbonne Universities. He received his doctorate in philosophy and international law from Hungarian University. During World War II he was a captain in the Hungarian Army. Following the communist takeover of his country he escaped in Austria. He was active in the Hungarian Revolution and was also engaged as an Interpol agent. He served as professor of languages at Presbyterian College in Pikeville, Ky. And was a professor in Germany. He was a professor at Western Carolina University from 1962 until his retirement in 1976 due to his health. Dr. Nagy was the author of several books published in Hungary on historical subjects and the medieval history of Central Europe.”
Those were the facts, but they only hint at the mystery and adventure that was the life of Geza Nagy.
Living History – Two Men, Two Fronts
I never knew Geza Nagy, but I learned of him many years ago from a professor and friend of mine who had been a colleague of Nagy. I was interested in the Eastern Front during World War II and my friend, Brian Walton was a Cambridge educated historian who had a vast knowledge of all things historical. He could give an armchair lecture on almost any historical topic relating to European or American history. The war was different though. It was not just a historical fact, it was a personal experience. Brian’s father, George had been a World War II veteran, signing up the day Great Britain went to war against Germany. He spent the war’s duration in the Royal Navy where he was on no less than five ships that were sunk in the North Sea. Brian himself had been born during the middle of the war in Stockport, a suburb of the northern English city of Manchester. He spent some of the first nights of his life in bomb shelters. His mother held him close to her as the dull thunder of exploding bombs shook the ground above. Brian once told me that on his street alone, there were five monuments marking where Luftwaffe bombs had landed. That was his knowledge of the war. It did not come from textbooks, but from life.
When I asked him if he could tell me about the war on the Eastern Front, he admitted a general ignorance of that part of the conflict. He paused for a few moments and then suddenly his voice thundered, “the whole thing was just madness, madness by the Germans.” The weather was terrible, the roads were bad, Russia was backwards and primitive, the land was vast and unconquerable, it swallowed invading armies. The opinions expressed were nothing new, they were commonly held. What he said next though, caught my attention. He had personally known someone who had fought on the Eastern Front. This man was not a German, but a Hungarian. The Hungarians had been aligned with the Germans. They had fought side by side. The man’s name was Geza Nagy. He had been an officer in the Hungarian Army. Brian had worked with Nagy for over a decade. Their nations had once been on opposite sides, before the two of them had ended up on the same side, thousands of miles from their respective homelands, teaching in the same history department. Though their professional backgrounds were relatively similar, their experiences with the war and its aftermath could not have been more different.
Approaching The Gates Of Hell
“When you are standing on the banks of the Don River in November you just know this was a real bad idea.” According to Brian that was Geza Nagy’s synopsis of what was going through his mind while he was stationed on the Eastern Front. Nagy was referring to the late fall of 1942. As the brutal Russian winter approached, the Hungarian 2nd Army found itself over a thousand miles east of its own territory. What force or ideal brought a couple of hundred thousand Hungarians, men like Nagy, to such a god forsaken war zone? The Hungarians had made a deal with the devil. In return for getting back “historic” lands taken from them in the post-World War I peace, the Hungarians had joined the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The verdant, forested landscapes of lower Slovakia, northern Transylvania and the sub-Carpathians were a distant memory in the hard bitten soil of southern Russia. Nagy may have been a scholar and professor, an expert linguist and published author, but deep inside the Eastern Front in 1942 his accomplishments and breadth knowledge meant nothing. Here he was an officer, a captain in the 2nd Army, about to fight for his life.
Brian said that Nagy recalled discussions with his fellow officers about how the campaign was heading towards disaster. They would have known first hand. The Hungarians had been poorly equipped by their German Allies. They lacked the men, material and fighting skill needed to overcome the natural and human obstacles presented to them by the Soviet Union. They had been left to guard the flank of the German forces that had been sucked into the maelstrom of Stalingrad. They were scattered across a hundred miles in and around the city of Voronezh, exposed to the elements, exposed to the enemy, miles of muddy roads behind them, facing howling winds and blinding blizzards. Then out of the winter mist, the Soviet Army appeared.
Scattered to the Fates
In the aptly titled The Will To Survive: A History of Hungary, Bryan Cartledge describes what happened next: “The anticipated Soviet assault on the Hungarian sector near Voronzeh, in which the Russians outnumbered the Second Army three to one in men and ten to one in artillery, began on 12 January 1943. After forty-eight hours, one Hungarian division was in full retreat and three days later two divisions abandoned their positions without waiting for the Russians to attack; within a week the Second Army had been virtually annihilated – 130,000 men out of its total strength 200,000 had been killed, wounded or captured.”
Even with those horrific losses, there were still thousands upon thousands of Hungarian troops scattered across the frozen plains facing the unimaginable, a retreat across endless plains and limitless horizons. One of those facing this daunting prospect was Geza Nagy.