GyÖ¶rgy RÖ©ti. Hungarian-Italian Relations in the Shadow of Hitler's Germany, 1933-1940. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 2003. 346 pp. $52.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88033-523-2.
Reviewed by Benjamin Martin (Department of History, Columbia University)
Published on H-German (March, 2005)
Rome, Budapest, and Berlin: The Diplomacy of Inevitability?
The 1930s witnessed an important but short-lived closeness of relations between Mussolini's Italy and Horthy's Hungary. Motivated by the shared desire to effect a radical revision of the international settlement that had followed the First World War, the two countries cooperated on an unprecedented scale. But just as this new relationship was becoming more important, the growing power and radical politics of Nazi Germany came to dominate the political considerations of Rome and Budapest and condition the two nations' subsequent relations.
György Réti's new book charts the diplomatic history of this relationship between Rome and Budapest, focusing above all on the ways it changed as both countries sought to pursue their political goals "in the shadow" of Nazi Germany. This shadow presence defines the period of Réti's study, which begins with Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and concludes with Hungary's entrance into the German-Italian-Japanese Tripartite Pact in 1940. Between these two dates, Réti argues that Hungary pursued what he calls a "dual policy," in which its diplomats sought to use both of Europe's fascist dictatorships for the pursuit of Hungary's own revisionist goals. Having pinned its hopes on Mussolini, Europe's most outspoken revisionist leader, Hungary was more or less forced into Germany's orbit by the later 1930s, as Hungary's backer and ally Italy itself changed from a major power in Southeastern Europe to the "willing victim" of Nazi Germany.
Réti, himself a retired Hungarian diplomat who has written several monographs on diplomatic history in Hungarian, offers a straightforward chronological narrative of these developments. In painstaking detail, Réti charts all the diplomatic maneuvers of the period, narrating the proceedings of diplomatic visits to Rome and Budapest, and detailing the language of their correspondence.
Above all, he documents the steps by which Hungary and Italy grew closer on the basis, he argues, of their shared opposition to the interwar international system: the Hungarians sought a revision of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon that had deprived them of so much territory, population, and resources, while the Italians hoped to expand their influence into the Danube basin. Réti, for example, narrates the negotiations surrounding the Rome Protocols of March 1934, which bound Austria, Hungary, and Italy to an alliance system that enshrined Italy as the major power in the region. As late as 1936, Mussolini still hoped to solidify this into an Italian-Hungarian-Austrian "entente" and customs union to strengthen Italy's position (p. 71). Grateful for Mussolini's frequent and vocal expressions of support for the revisionist claims of "mutilated Hungary," the Hungarians joined only Austria and Albania in voting against sanctions against Italy in 1935 following the invasion of Ethiopia. (The vote at the League of Nations was 50 to 4.) Réti offers just a glimpse of the ways in which this diplomatic closeness flowed out into the popular realm as well. Réti tells of wild adulation for Mussolini in Budapest, including torchlight parades to the Italian embassy to offer thanks and praise for Italy's support. Réti's narrative could have benefited from more of this kind of information, which gives a sense of the popular passions surrounding the problem of revisionism while also giving color to what can be a somewhat dry narrative.
Réti argues that the same set of desires for territorial revision led the Hungarians to look favorably on the idea of closer cooperation between Italy and Germany. An alliance between Fascist Italy and a resurgent Germany, they thought, would create a group of nations that would be powerful enough to undo the international order held in place by French and British power. Réti shows that Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös was a supporter of this idea even before Hitler came to power; already in 1932, he declared his belief "that if Rome and Berlin and Vienna and Budapest could form a stronger organization, it would play an important role in the political life of Europe" (p. 8). Indeed, Réti reports that it was Gömbös who first coined the phrase "Rome-Berlin Axis" (p. 7).
What strained German-Italian relations in this period above all was the question of the status of Austria. Réti carefully charts the well-known tale of Mussolini's early saber rattling and later capitulation to Hitler's demands for an Anschluss, arguing that this represented the turning point for Italian-Hungarian relations. By relinquishing his promise to defend Austrian independence, Mussolini allowed the 1934 Rome Protocols to be violated and undermined confidence in his real ability to maintain his promises to Hungary. For this reason, Réti shows that, looking from Budapest, Italy, and Germany were never on anything like equal footing, even early in the history of the Axis. As far as the Hungarians were concerned, Italy acknowledged that Germany was the dominant power in Southeastern Europe already in 1938.
In the remainder of Réti's tale, however, he shows that the Hungarians continued to hope for special assistance and protection from Italy. As late as April 1940, the Hungarians sought Italy's protection from Germany in the event Hungary chose to refuse German soldiers passage through Hungary. Mussolini apparently smiled ironically at the suggestion that he would do anything at all for Hungary that would compromise Italy's alliance with Germany (p. 232). Why the Hungarians allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking that the Italians would do otherwise is an interesting question. It is not one to which Réti has much of an answer, unfortunately, other than to cite again the monomaniacal obsession of Hungary's political leadership with revision, which made them willing to take any risk in order to regain lost territory. Réti concludes that Hungary essentially mistook Italy for a great power, but does not explain why the Hungarians continued to believe this even after events made it clear that the future of Southeastern Europe would be determined by Germany.
In the epilogue that concludes the book, Réti claims that "the principal lesson we can derive in this study" is that it was "inevitable" that the Horthy regime "cooperated" with Fascist Italy, and "how equally inevitable it was that both Hungary and Italy become submissive to the most aggressive, economically and militarily much stronger brand of fascism" (p. 283). Inevitability seems to me a dubious lesson to draw from a story about political choices. If anything, it seems clear that the political leadership of Hungary and Italy both made a conscious and terrible gamble--allying themselves with Hitler's Germany, in opposition to decency and common sense, in order to pursue revisionist claims that were narrowly nationalist and of dubious legitimacy--for which their own populations, along with the victims of Axis aggression, paid the price. As such they bear a terrible responsibility, which is exactly the opposite of Réti's vaguely exculpatory claims about events having been "inevitable."
Hungary's goals, Réti claims, were more modest and, implicitly, more legitimate than Italy's, since the Hungarians (merely) wanted revision, not empire. But Réti's own narrative of Hungary's entrance in 1940 into the expansion of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan seems to contradict this. Hungary struggled to be the first to join this new unit, hoping, Réti argues, to position itself to benefit most (in terms, again, of territorial readjustment) from an eventual Axis victory, hoping to be "primus inter pares" in the Danube basin after the war (p. 272). Hungary, like Italy, sought to ride the coattails of Germany's war towards a position of greater power in the postwar "New Order." This seems to have been just as craven and cynical as the actions of the Italians; which is what Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki may have realized when he took his own life later in 1940, out of remorse over signing that very agreement.
The darkness surrounding the meaning of the choices made by the diplomats of Réti's tale is caused, in large measure, by Réti's failure to offer a satisfying explanatory framework within which to understand these diplomatic decisions. That is, while he presents revision as the Hungarians' overriding motivation, he offers little of the information or context that would be needed to understand why this was so important. Réti admits early on that economics and culture are not his focus, but not considering these topics (or the power of nationalist or Fascist ideology) leaves the reader without much by way of real explanation or interpretation of the diplomatic maneuvers that are narrated here in such detail. If nothing else, the book could have benefited from more information about the personalities of the politicians and diplomats. We learn that Gömbös was himself a more radical rightist than some of his colleagues, but are offered little material with which to gauge the importance of that fact.
The fact that Réti's book leaves the reader eager to know more about the background and motivations of this extraordinary episode is itself a testament to the power of his narrative, which succeeds in offering a clear, helpful, and interesting discussion of this period's diplomatic history that raises many important issues. Above all, Réti's work has suggested to this reader, poorly schooled in the history of Southeastern Europe, that the view from the Southeast can shed new light even on relatively well-studied Western European political events. Réti's book is a welcome reminder, in this sense, of the need for more historical scholarship that explores the complex interconnections among European countries and across Europe's regions--including in directions that more recent political configurations, notably the Cold War-era idea of Eastern Europe, have obscured.
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Benjamin Martin. Review of RÖ©ti, GyÖ¶rgy, Hungarian-Italian Relations in the Shadow of Hitler's Germany, 1933-1940.
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