Though the above quote was published in the weekly paper Vasárnapi Újság in September 1914, it did not reflect the personal opinion of the journalist, but referenced the contents of the legal regulation adopted in 1913, in the previous year, by the Parliament. The 1913 Act was in fact the late adoption of the international regulation amended in 1907, accepted in the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899, recording the rights of prisoners of war. The codification of the regulation meant, however, that upon a potential war, the Hungarian government shall ensure the rights of prisoners of war stationed in the country and their adequate care.
The Act was “tested” really soon, since Serbian and Russian prisoners of war arrived in the country already in the late summer of 1914, whose food and accommodation had to be ensured with a short deadline. The public was shocked by the large number of prisoners of war; moreover, the question was often raised: Why should I feed the ones who had killed our sons? However, already in September 1914, we could witness another phenomenon: namely that the prisoners of war who arrived were seen by many as loveable, “exotic foreigners”, and were also treated as such. Such statements were also reported by Vasárnapi Újság in a detailed and at the same time condemning manner: “But to put a flower on the buttonhole of the one who came to destroy my country, to give cookies to the ones who are responsible for the sufferings and horrors of the war, to wish as relics for the button or cap of ones shooting at my brother: this is not required by any kind of morality, decency or humanism.”
Often even residents of settlements near war prisoner camps did not know if they should oppose the masses of foreigners, or on the contrary, they should approach them with understanding? The ambivalent relationship and hostile feelings against prisoners were practically traceable everywhere over the long years of captivity; however, there are several examples of peaceful coexistence as well.
According to a statement, on January 1, 1918, 1 309 394 prisoners of war were registered in the territory of the Monarchy: around 72% of prisoners were Russian, approximately 8-8% were Italian as well as Serbian, but several thousands of Romanian and a few thousand Montenegrin and a few hundred French prisoners also stayed here. No exact data remained on how many of the above stationed in the territory of the Hungarian Kingdom, but the extent can be inferred from the fact that 424 155 war prisoners worked in Hungary in various fields (agriculture, industry, military plants, state companies and forestry), while this number was only 274 852 in Austria.
So the first prisoners of wararrived in the country in August 1914 and were placed to Kenyérmező near Esztergom (now a suburb of Esztergom). The camp was established in the territory of a bankrupt glass factory, accommodating the prisoners first only in tents on the bare ground. However, it soon turned out that the war would not end with the “fall of leaves”; therefore a town of barracks was built. Difficulties in placement and bad hygienic conditions resulted in a row of contagious diseases: People living here suffered from cholera in the autumn of 1914, typhus in the spring of 1915. The camp functioned till the end of the war, nearly 100 thousand prisoners showed up and at the same time 50-60 thousand people stayed here. After the war, the buildings were demolished, but the cemetery of prisoners of war can be visited even today: nearly 4500 persons are buried here.
Esztergom was not able to welcome the masses of prisoners, therefore new camps wre built in Dunaszerdahely, Somorja, Zalaegerszeg, Csót, Ostffyasszonyfa – only to mention the biggest ones. The camps were made up of wooden barracks, capable of accommodating 150-400 persons depending on the floor space. The barracks could be accessed on regular streets and the camps were provided with public lighting, water and drainage system. Technically they were often more modern than settlements around the camp. When selecting the camp territory, a decisive factor was easy access (often separate railway lines were built – of course from a main railway line, like in the case of ), and transparent, flat terrain. Upon establishing the camps, they considered if there were arable agricultural lands nearby, since it was important to at least partly ensure the self-supply of camps.
Pursuant to the already mentioned act from 1913, no personal belongings – military documents, weapons and horses were taken though to prevent their escape – were allowed to be taken from prisoners, and their free movement also had to be ensured under supervision and within a defined territory. In addition, the detaining state had the chance to employ the prisoners as workers – with the exception of officers –, “depending on their abilities“. Employment of prisoners became significant from 1915, they were first employed for larger agricultural works. According to the law, their work had to be paid for as if it was carried out by soldiers of the state. Their living expenses were of course deducted from their wage, but they were made available the remaining amount with restrictions. Later prisoners were employed not only in agriculture but also in industry, even military plants, so the detailed regulation of their employment became inevitable.
After their years spent here, the prisoners left eh country in 1918 in masses. Camps were abolished in many cases, but some of them got a new role. On the one hand, they lived on as demilitarization camps, i.e. former Hungarian soldiers returning at the end of the war as well as after the peace deal, returning to their families as civilians after the usually two-week health quarantine, were welcome and registered here. However, two camps – in Csót and Zalaegerszeg – got more special fates. Csót operated between 1915 and 1923: first as a camp for prisoners of war, then as a collection camp of refugees fleeing from the Romanian army in 1918–1919, and finally as a demilitarization camp – this is were soldiers returning from the Russian captivity between 1920 and 1923. Not many original documents remained regarding its operation, but its history was nevertheless dealt with by many: its role obviously was perceived differently during the Horthy-era and the state socialism. The few documents that are available include a recollection series collected from survivors in 1961. Those having been in Russian captivity and having been observed for political reasons reported deprivation and ill-treatment, while those not having been affected by atrocities spent balanced days in the camp. Those who returned from Russian captivity, underwent political screening, and were found suspicious – the ones fighting in the Red Army, former members of the Bolshevik party, agitators – were sentenced and interned to Zalaegerszeg. The internment camp here did not only welcome those returning from the Soviet Union but also the ones sentenced due to their role during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The public was not even aware of the existence of the camp for a long time, until Pesti Hírlap raged against abuses in the camp in a gloss in January 1923. The case was finally brought before the parliament, and a parliamentary committee was ordered to investigate abuses. The camp was finally abolished in December 1924.
We shall mention Russian prisoners of war separately; owing to their extremely large numbers on the one hand, and due to the fact that they stayed in Hungary in significant numbers even in the early twenties, thanks to the new relations after the Russian revolution. The first Russian prisoners arrived to Budapest around September 4, 1914, and they were transported toward Esztergom from here by train. Muscas soon appeared everywhere throughout the country, and offered the themes of a huge number of newspaper gossips. “Russian bears”, who rather evoked sympathy among the public, were treated slightly with contempt, but their workforce was heavily relied on. Many of them stayed in Hungary and started a family, while the last Russian prisoners of war returned to the Soviet Union in 1922.
Az első orosz szállítmány Esztergomban = Pesti Hírlap, 1914. szeptember 5.
Orosz foglyok Budapesten = Pesti Hírlap, 1914. szeptember 5.
A hadifogoly = Vasárnapi Újság, 1914. szeptember 20.
- évi XLIII. törvénycikk – az első két nemzetközi békeértekezleten megállapított több egyezmény és nyilatkozat becikkelyezése tárgyában = 1000ev.hu
Blasszauer Róbert: Hadifoglyok Magyarországon az I. világháború idején = AD ACTA. A Hadtörténelmi Levéltár évkönyve, 2002.
Kaba Eszter: „Őszre hazajönnek mind!” Hadifogolykérdés és a magyar társadalom a Pesti Hírlap hasábjain, 1920–1923. = Aetas, 2014/3.
Négyesi Lajos: Az esztergomi első világháborús hadifogolytábor temetői = nagyhaboru.blog.hu
Rácz István: Adatok a csóti hadifogolytábor történetéhez. Csót, 1973.
Written by: Eszter Kaba