Hungarians in Soviet captivity

Hungarians in Soviet captivity – historical background, memory and research

Soviet troops began their advance to the Carpathian Basin after the Roumanian change-over in late August 1944. Nearly at the same time, they started to gather prisoners among the civilian population.

The Soviets had prepared for utilizing massive forced labor from newly conquered territories long before. Beside the GULAG system – holding „political” and ordinary criminals captive – they set up the UPVI (Directorate of Camps for POWs and Internees), which soon evolved to GUPVI (Chief Directorate). The first prisoners arrived in 1939 right after the joint occupation of Poland, and then kept on arriving in 1940 from the annexed Baltic states. The overwhelming majority of them were just civilians, deported on ethnic basis (Poles from Belarus and Ukraine, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, and even Karelian Finns). At the end of the war, this system of forced labor camps – GUPVI – was ready to accept farther masses of civilians, who were labeled as hostile populace.

A piece of the Carpathian Basin, which was to be annexed to the Soviet Union, was the experimental ground for the mechanism of ethnic cleansing, desposing of possible political enemies and intimidating the rest. The 4th Ukranian Front issued the order No.36, on 17 November 1944 to conscript every Hungarian and German able bodied males from 16 to 70 for compulsory work. This was the prelude to the order by the Stavka 16th December, which concerned the whole of Central Europe, save Poland, aiming to remove the entire adult German population of that region.

There are confusing numbers, but it seems the most plausible that alltogether 600-700 thousands were in Soviet camps. Several groups made up the totality of Hungarians who suffered Soviet captivity. First, there were the prisoners of war. Second, the ethnic cleansing in Subcarpathia (Kárpátalja, Podkarpatska, Zakarpatska Rus) meant that 20-30 000 people were deported from there. Third, the retaliation against alleged Germans in Hungary affected the fate of some 70 000. Fourth, the civilians who were gathered from Budapest – to verify the falsificated number of Axis forces defending the city – comprised of 100 000. Fifth, those Hungarian who lived outside the 1938 borders but within the 1941 borders (mainly from a thin stripe Eastern-Slovakia and from Northern Transylvania) and were deported by the Soviets, counted some thousands. Finally, contrary to the aforementioned categories, who were all sent to the GUPVI, between 5 and 30 thousands were condemned by special military juries (troykas) and were taken to the GULAG as political criminals. According to Soviet sources, there is a total sum of 550 000 Hungarians who reached their destinations in the realm of the Soviet forced labor camps, but many could not make their way. Most likely, tens of thousands perished in the transit camps and during the journey.

Those who returned (mostly the prisoners of war and the internees) did it till 1950, some only in the fifties and a handful even later. The last Hungarian captive returned in 2000. The most widely accepted sum of the survivors is 350-380 thousands.

Throughout the Communist era, the issue was forbidden to speak about. Only two books were presented. One was published first as a series of retrospective reports on Hungarian POW’s in a newspaper right after the war. It was edited as a book only in 1981. This edition came out as a countermeasure to the Gulag archipelago of Solzhenhitsyn and the prepared Hungarian „Gulag archipelago” by a Hungarian dissident. The other one was publisshed in 1962 as a part of the Khrushchev-style disclosure of the Stalin-era crimes. An old and notorious Hungarian communist wrote it who was imprisoned back in the Great Purge. The first real presentation of the Soviet captivity in a documentary was showed in 1988 when the dictatorship was starting to collapse. The main difference between the first two works and the later was that it dealt with the civilians’ fate, not with the POW’s or the political prisoners.

Research and commemorative work started. In the years of the transition period and after, dozens of memoirs were published. In 1993 a memorial tomb was inaugurated in Budapest for those who suffered in the Soviet camps. In 1994 a memorial park was estabilished in the place of the former death camp of Szolyva-Svalyeva (Ukraine, Supcarpathia). In 2000 the Hungarian government introduced the Memorial Day of the Victims of Communism. The House of Terror Museum organized a temporary exhibition named „Hungarian Tragedy 1945” in 2005. Recompensations were payed, but only by the Hungarian state. A civil NGO (Pécs-Baranyai Német Kör – German Association in the city of Pécs and county Baranya) started to organize expeditions to the former Soviet territories, in order to pay honor for the victims.

The historical concept of Soviet captivity became a public issue, however, not in the scale as the phenoma’s extent would deserve.

Aron Mathé

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