Szurmay Sándor (1860–1945) (wikipedia)

Minister about the quarantine of Hungarian prisoners of war: it is needed “to transform them into humans”

The Monarchy’s authorities were surprised that in early 1918, before the separate peace with the Bolsheviks, more and more Austrian-Hungarian prisoners of war escaped over the Front and tried to come home. Because of internal social tensions, authorities in Vienna and Budapest took various precautionary measures. The Hungarian Minister of Defence justified why the prisoners of war are placed into a four-week “moral quarantine” after the health care quarantine with an egregious statement:  to “transform them into humans”. In fact, authorities were afraid of the spread of Bolshevik ideology – but they could not prevent it: several future leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic had been Russian prisoners of war. 

The arrival of Russian prisoners of war home has already started in the days, weeks before the separate peace at Brest-Litovsk between the Soviet-Russian government and the central powers. Az Est writes about many thousands of people on February 17 who got to this side of the front while Russian authorities did not release them officially. According to Seidler Austrian Chancellor, 20 thousand prisoners of war from the Monarchy “came home through the open front”. After the separate peace, the flow of prisoners from Siberia and other parts of Russia from the East to the West accelerated even more.

However, it is a mistake to believe that all prisoners of war returned home by the end of 1918. According to Katalin Petrák, only 700 thousand of the Monarch’s around 1.8-2.1 million soldiers, civilians in labour battalions and territorials in Russian captivity could return home by the autumn of 1918. For example, the return of some of them was hindered by the Czechoslovak legion fighting against the Bolsheviks, which occupied the Siberian railroads and, together with the Cossacks on the side of whites, fought a cruel, killer war – combined with torture – against the Hungarian prisoners of war. Some of the prisoners of war were already kept in concentration camps in the turn of 1918-1919, further narrowing their scope. With the collapse of the Tsarist system, the control of detention camps and the supply of prisoners were not ensured centrally. Public security has ceased, many of the ones living in camps joined the Red Army for their personal safety.

While it could secure their survival (as well) in Russia, it was difficult for them to return to civilian life when they returned home. Sometimes people did not want to take back former Red soldiers to the country, therefore in the twenties many of them left to the West after they returned to Hungary.

With a little advance in time, among the around two million captives from the Monarchy, the number of Hungarians could be around 5-600 thousand, and it also turns out from Petrák’s book, published in 2012 (Human fates in the 20th century) that probably tens of thousands of people could suffer in Siberia or in the captivity of Crimean Tatars even at the end of the twenties. Others did not return home because they started to work in large cities of Soviet-Russia, or other parts of the country, many of them even got married, founded family and got citizenship.

The Horthy age was even more afraid of Russian prisoners of war than authorities of the Monarchy, and often took care of the – expensive – transfer of former prisoners home with difficulty. Until December 20, 1920, only 36 thousand people returned home, among whom the one qualified as “unreliable” were interrogated in domestic disarming caps about their previous deeds – during the so called “four-eye investigations”. This is written about not only by Katalin Petrák, but Eszter Kaba also writes about the abuses in the camp in Csót. For example, in a parliamentary debate in the Horthy era, Vilmos Vázsonyi’s interruption, stating that those returning home and kept in the camp in Csót and are found suspicious are often beaten up, and may even lose their eye. (Abuses continued here until the closure of the camp in 1923.)

At the beginning of 1918, Vázsonyi was still Justice Minister in Hungary, and now we can jump back to his time in office, when the former prisoners of war started to arrive (or rather flow) back home from Russia. In early 1918, the leadership of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was worried about this – theoretically merry – process, since the flow of prisoners who might have been influenced by Bolshevik ideology was a significant risk to the political system. Of course, the majority of prisoners did not become Bolshevik and significant groups of officers sometimes followed completely different tendencies in prison camps, but they were chased, taken hostage or simply killed sometimes by the Bolsheviks, sometimes by the Czechs.

Hungarian authorities were not prepared to welcome the prisoners of war. Sándor Szurmay Minsiter of Defense – the only head of ministry who had been in this post back at the time of István Tisza too and then held his post also in the Esterházy and Wekerle governments organized from opposition parties until the fall of the Monarchy – also admitted this to Az Est in the turn of February-March. According to an article of Népszava on the first of March, 1918, Szurmay was previously in Vienna to consult about the prisoners of war returning from Russia. He then talked to a colleague of Az Est and said that several thousands or even tens of thousands of people return home a day. According to Népszava, the ones who return are held in health quarantine for two weeks (bathing, disinfecting, new clothes). But the paper quotes much more interesting statements of the Minister too: “The fourteen days of quarantine is followed by four weeks of moral quarantine, which is necessary for other reasons. I not only know, but also deeply believe that all sons of my sweet country return home from Russian captivity with such a pure spirit and true Hungarian loyalty that everyone can trust them. But it is possible that there are some who, forgetting about the loyalty for their home, seek to spread Russian false teachings. Everyone can see that selecting them from many thousands of people is really difficult.”

Népszava‘s quote highlights the essence, but Szurmay also emphasized for Az Est that: “The majority of prisoners of war return home without any documents or writings. During the four weeks of moral quarantine, we have to be ascertained about their identity and whether or not they had been voluntarily captured. These four weeks are also required in order to transform them into humans, since many of them did not even live a life that is suitable for humans during their long way: they robbed, perhaps even killed people only to come home.”

Szurmay assumed terrible things about the prisoners of war. But the day before the statement of the Minister, Az Est interviewed an unnamed “high-ranking military officer”, who told more about why the ones returning home had to be placed under quarantine. In his view, they could include people “who are not happy to see the survival of the Monarchy”. He referred to those, for example, who the Russians organized into the Czechoslovak legion, but the military officer, asking for anonymity, also talked about Serbian and Romanian divisions too. Then he added: “So we have to take care of these people so that they cannot continue to spread their propaganda against our home and bring here the fire of revolution that they had been direct viewers of. Russian leaders at this time tried very well to smuggle their subversive ideals into our home, and there were agents who they wanted to slip in together with the homecomers. We have found a lot of brochures and pamphlets at our returning prisoners that might be suitable for spreading the feral ideas of Russians.”

On the second of March, Népszava reported that the first group of Hungarian prisoners of war, “who had been lately released” from Russia, arrived at the station in Józsefváros two days ago. (According to other papers, transports of prisoners of war arrived in Debrecen and Kolozsvár earlier as well.) According to Népszava, “they went along Baross street in a long march to the Transportstation in Óriás street, where they were temporarily placed. The thousand prisoners of war are among the ones who escaped over the Ukrainian front to our troops in the first weeks of January. They were all kept in health and mental quarantine in a small village near Lemberg”.

It is thereby clear that Szurmay did not talk in random: the Monarchy’s authorities must have been afraid of the prisoners who escaped in January, since at that time, a huge wave of strikes paralysed the dual state almost entirely: 6-700 thousand people went on strike in Vienna, Budapest and other cities of the Monarchy. Socialist claims also affected the sailors at Cattaro, who rebelled at the beginning of February, and paralysed one-third of the naval force of the dualist state.

On March 3, they officially concluded the peace at Brest-Litovsk, one point of which officially declared that prisoners of war are released to go home from both sides. This was reported on by Népszava on March 5. Meanwhile, in early March, Austrian Social Democrats spoke up for the prisoners of war in the house of representatives of Vienna. “Adler, Seitz and their companions” said that the quarantine should not take longer than 21 days and homecomers should be sent on leave for three months.

According to the issue of Népszava on March 14, representatives of the Hungarian and Austrian Red Cross held a meeting on “how it would be possible to facilitate the return of Hungarian and Austrian soldiers in Russian captivity”. Ignác Darányi, the head of the Hungarian Office for the Protection of Prisoners of War – who was known previously for breaking the agrarian socialist movements – said that “we shall not have excessive expectations that the transfer of prisoners of war home will start soon”. Darányi did not see the cause for the above in the slowness of Hungarian authorities, but that “the postal traffic, telegraphs and cash flow are still suspended in Russia”.

The return of prisoners of war also resulted in tragic cases. Returning home, Jenő Mály coachman learnt that his wife had cheated on him, then killed the woman with his bayonet or knife (according to various versions) before the eyes of their children. Mály escaped, but was soon caught by the police in a bush. He had a fake ID but was recognized by his M.J. tattoo on his hand. Népszava commented on the tragic incident as follows: “This is how the war-born morality starts and operates.”

News also arrived from the prisoners held in Russia in February, though they were not really reliable. According to Az Est in February 10, in Moscow, six thousand Hungarian and Austrian prisoners of war held a “meeting” –  at that time, this rather meant an assembly –, and “decided to demand six hours of work and fifty roubles of allowance a day”. The – not so reliable – news was written down by a reporter of Az Est in Stockholm, based on the story of civilian people who were interned in Russia and were in Stockholm, Sweden in February.

Regardless of how much the Monarchy’s authorities tried to prevent the spread of Bolshevik propaganda, in the extremely tense internal political situation, they did not have much chance, since the political elite continued to stiffen its position regarding general suffrage from April, and in the summer of 1918, the draft bill of István Tisza’s Labour Party with minimal concessions was adopted. So the Monarchy’s elite was forced to make a true compromise with the nationalities and masses of workers. Meanwhile, some of the prisoners of war were indeed radicalised. According to Galántai, “prisoners of war played a huge role in the spread of revolutionary spirit from the spring of 1918”. (He also estimates that the number of Hungarians among the two million prisoners of war from the Monarchy was half a million, of whom 300 thousand returned home by the end of October in 1918.) “The number of Hungarians who took part in Russian revolutions is extremely high. Among the prisoners of war, a revolutionary movement was born. Especially those who had taken part in the Socialist movement at home became communists and organizers of the movement due to the Russian events (Károly Ligeti, Tibor Szamuely, Ernő Pór, Ferenc Jancsik, József Rabinovits and others). On March 24, the Hungarian Group of the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party (OK(b)P) was founded with the presidency of Béla Kun. On April 3, the group’s central paper, Social Revolution was published.”

In May, Béla Kun was also elected to be the head of the OK(b)P’s Federation of Foreign Groups. According to Galántai, “as a result of the enlightening agitation of the group, many homecoming prisoners of war spread the ideas of Socialist revolution at home”. Let us add that later Russian many prisoners of war became the heads of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (among the mentioned ones, Kun, Rabinovits and Szamuely became commissars as well as deputy commissars), Ernő Pór became the foreign affairs commissar of the Slovak Soviet Republic, and Ferenc Jancsik was the commander of the Red Guards in Budapest and the president of the Revolutionary court of Budapest in 1919.

Oroszországi internáltjaink Stockholmban = Az Est, 1918. február 10.
Hazafelé szivárognak a magyar hadifoglyok = Az Est, 1918. február 17.
Wekerle és Seidler nyilatkozata az oroszországi hadifoglyokról = Az Est, 1918. február 21.
A hazajövő hadifoglyok négy heti vesztegzár alatt = Az Est, 1918. február 28.
Beszélgetés Szurmay honvédelmi miniszterrel az Oroszországból hazatérő katonákról = Az Est, 1918. március 1.
Kéthetes egészségügyi – négyhetes erkölcsi vesztegzár = Népszava, 1918. március 1.
Jönnek a hadifoglyok = Népszava, 1918. március 2.
Megkötötték a békét Oroszországgal = Népszava, 1918. március 5.
A visszatérő hadifoglyok sorsa = Népszava, 1918. március 7.
Darányi az Oroszországban levő hadifoglyok hazaszállításáról = Népszava, 1918. március 14.
A hadifoglyokért = Népszava, 1918. április 28.
Petrák Katalin: Emberi sorsok a 20. században. Magyar hadifoglyok és emigránsok a Szovjetunióban a két világháború között. Budapest, 2012. [Book extract: read here.]
Kaba Eszter: „Őszre hazajönnek mind!” Hadifogolykérdés és a magyar társadalom a Pesti Hírlap hasábjain, 1920–1923. Aetas, 2014/3. 97–108.
Galántai József: Magyarország az első világháborúban. In: Magyarország története 1890–1918. Főszerk.: Hanák Péter. Budapest, 1988. 1083-1234.

Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő