On the very edge of Hungary, astride the Austrian border, stands the small village of Velem. Set amid the forested slopes of the Koszeg Mountains, Velem is located in a quintessentially romantic landscape. A wild, wooded, seductive charm surrounds the village. High above, on the top of St. Vid Hill, a church can be seen, its steeple soaring above the treetops. Aesthetically the village holds a place somewhere between the mysterious and the magical, an air of mysticism pervades the area.
Internally Exiled – Delusion and Darkness In Velem
For those in Hungary on a first visit, Velem strikes a postcard perfect beginning, inviting the traveler to a more extensive exploration of the area. That makes it all the more disconcerting to discover that Velem’s 20th century history, much like the nation it is a part of, is conflicted. The sheer beauty of this landscape makes it quite hard to believe that during the latter part of World War II, Velem was home to Hungary’s rump Nazi government, the Arrow Cross. With Budapest entirely surrounded by Soviet forces, the fascist leaders of the Arrow Cross fled the capital, making their way to the far western reaches of Hungary. They went to Velem because it was about as close to the Austrian border as they could get without leaving Hungary. The Arrow Cross leadership was now only seven kilometers (4 miles) away from Austria. They almost certainly knew their next port of call would be further west. The Stirling Villa (today used as a conference center) became the temporary seat of government from late December 1944 until early March 1945. Here the leader of the Arrow Cross, Ferenc Szalasi spent the final months of his short, despotic reign over what was left of fascist Hungary.
Szalasi was a depraved man, a strange candidate to lead Hungary down into a spiral of destruction. Oddly enough, he had much in common with several of history’s more famous despots. Just as Napoleon was a Corsican who led France, Hitler an Austrian who led Germany and Stalin a Georgian who led the Soviet Union, Szalasi was almost everything, but Hungarian. He was originally from Kassa (Kosice, Slovakia today), which had been on the frontiers of the former Kingdom of Hungary. The city had become part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Only one of his grandparents was Hungarian, while his father was of Armenian descent. He also had German, Slovak and Rusyn ancestry. For such a raging racist, Szalasi had a major problem. He had more Slavic than Hungarian blood flowing through his veins. What exactly Szalasi was from an ethnic standpoint is open to question. There was no such issue with nationality though, he was fervently Hungarian. He had risen to prominence by promoting an extreme form of nationalism intermixed with ethnic purity. Installed by the occupying Germans, Szalasi did the bidding of his masters, fomenting hatred against thousands of innocent people, especially the Jews. He was the quintessential ethnic outsider trying to make up for his lack of Hungarian credentials by being the most extreme Hungarian of all.
Suspending Disbelief – The Madness of Ferenc Szalasi
Even with the Soviet Army surging westward, Szalasi continued his incendiary rhetoric. Exiled to the nation’s sparsely populated frontier, in a village of at most a couple of hundred people, he suspended disbelief for several more months. Szalasi and the Arrow Cross had painted themselves into such a corner that there was nothing else for them to do, but espouse hatred. They had kindled a fire that would eventually consume tens of thousands of innocent people along with themselves. The last days Szalasi spent in Hungary as a free man happened to occur in this beautiful yet lonely outpost. Standing in the Stirling Villa a visitor is apt to ponder what was going through Szalasi’s decadent mind.
Today we have the gift of hindsight, knowing what would eventually happen to Szalasi and his movement, but at the time he did not know where this radicalism would end. Undoubtedly he must have suspected that his dark vision was headed towards the abyss. While ensconced in Velem, pondering what looked like the inevitable, what did Szalasi do? Did he scale the 582 meter St. Vid Hill and gaze out across the snow covered landscape, reflecting on what was happening to him and the insidious movement he led? Did he beg repentance at the St. Vitus Church in Velem? It is doubtful. Most likely, he continued to delude himself into thinking that victory was still possible, all the while planning an escape. None of the magical spirit of the surrounding landscape could soften Szalasi. He was sinking into the ruins of a reality he had helped create. By March the game was up and he along with what was left of his government raced into Austria, then onward to Germany. He would be captured in Bavaria and turned over to the authorities who now ruled Hungary.
At the End of A Rope – The Road toward Ruin
Szalasi returned to Hungary as a prisoner. Placed on trial by the Soviets, he was expeditiously tried and convicted. Soon thereafter, he was publicly hanged in Budapest. Photos show Szalasi’s body dangling, his head covered with a cloth sack as onlookers stare curiously at the lifeless corpse dangling from the scaffold. Velem seems light years away from this image. The lush forests that cover the magnificent uplands around the village have nothing in common with such a scene. Today, the steeple of the church atop St. Vid Hill still reaches skyward, toward heaven. If this landscape cannot save a man, then perhaps there was nothing left to save. The human side (if there ever was one) of Ferenc Szalasi had died long ago, sacrificed on the altar of ideology. His beliefs took longer to die. Tragically those beliefs lived long enough to sweep thousands of innocent lives away and take Hungary down a road toward ruin.