Order of Vitéz
During World War II, many members of the Hungarian government and military were members of the Order; as such, members were involved in both contributing to the Holocaust in Hungary as well as leading efforts against it. The United States Department of State lists this Order of Vitéz as having been "under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany.
The Order of Vitéz has several successors; one, the Historical Order of Vitézi, is recognised by the International Commission on Orders of Chivalry as an "Institution of Chivalric Character". Its current Captain General is HRH Archduke Josef Arpád of Austria.
The Hungarian word Vitéz is of medieval Slavic origin and means "valiant", "gallant soldier" or "knight". The Vitézi Rend (Order of the Valiant) should not be confused with the 17th-century Vitézlő Rend (Fighting Estate), which refers to a rebellion of former peasants and craftsmen whose homes had been destroyed by the Ottoman Empire. These men took up arms and formed an estate within society that received charters, rights and privileges over the centuries, mainly from the princes of Transylvania, but which were eventually recognised by the Habsburg kings of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Establishment of the Order
Following the peace Treaty of Trianon, which banished the ruling House of Hapsburg from Hungary, a constitutional assembly decided to return to the monarchical form of government and replace the incumbent Habsburg regent, Archduke Joseph August von Habsburg of Austria, with Vice-Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya. It was mainly his idea to help re-build the shattered country by giving land to soldiers who had proven themselves on the battlefield. This way, the poverty brought on by World War I could begin to be alleviated and soldiers could be rewarded.
The Vitéz Order was created by Prime Ministerial Decree number 6650 of 1920 (6650/1920 M.E. in Hungarian usage) and was included as paragraph no. 77 in the Land Reform Act (Law XXXVI of 1920). Membership replaced the titles of nobility; since Horthy was only the regent of the Hungarian Kingdom, he had no rights to make people knights or noblemen. The title of "vitéz" was to serve as an award. The "vitéz" title was official. The legislation gave those qualifying as members of the Order in need a grant of land and/or a house. According to Viktor Karady, "its members served as a strictly Christian gentry".
Admittance into the Order was exclusively on military merit by the number of medals won. It worked on a system depending on rank, where privates or junior NCOs had to prove lesser awards of bravery, while officers and generals had to prove more in World War I. Members received a badge and were entitled to use the designation vitéz as a prefix to their names. Admission into the Order also carried with it a land grant of 40 cadastral holds to an officer, eight cadastral holds to other ranks based on need (1 cadastral hold = c. 1.43 acres). The Order of Vitéz become hereditary, and the grants (title, badge and land grant) were to be passed on by the recipient to his eldest son. Horthy was the first to be admitted into the Order and was also its Captain General (Főkapitány). In 1920, Archduke Joseph August of Austria became the first knight of the Order of Vitéz.
World War II
In October of 1944, the Government of National Unity was etablished as a Nazi puppet state. According to the Hungarian historian George Deák, the Order of Vitéz was a “‘tainted’ but ambiguous symbol” during the war years: antisemitism was a shared sentiment among the order membership, though the order itself was not explicitly antisemitic. For example, Hungarian Interior Minister László Endre, a noted anti-semite, member of various incarnations of the Hungarian National Socialist Party, and Nazi collaborator during the war, eagerly helped Adolf Eichmann collect and deport more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews between May and July 1944, and was a “proud members of the order” according to Deák. László Ferenczy, a Lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Gendarme who worked under Endre to first establish the ghettos and later the attempted deportation of the Jews of Hungary in 1944, gathered thousands of Jews at the Obuda brick factory and sent them on a death march towards Hegyeshalom near the Western border to build a line of defense, and indicated in reports that he was aware of what was taking place at Auschwitz. Like Endre, Ferenczy was a “proud member of the order” according to Deák. The majority of the real estate owned by Jews that were deported after the German occupation of Hungary went to organizations supportive of the collaborationist regime, including the Order of Vitéz and some of its members.
However, Hungarian historian Róbert Kerepeszki stresses that there were ruptures in the organization of the Order of Vitéz on the question of Nazism during the war, and many of them died fighting against Hungarian Nazis. The most famous of them was Vilmos Nagy de Nagybaczon, who was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations for saving Jews. Vitéz Ferenc Koszorus deployed his troops to stop Jewish deportations, allowing the escape of perhaps as many as 250,000 Jews concentrated in Budapest. Miklós Horthy Jr. was also an anti-fascist "vitéz" who conducted negotiations with the Allies, and was deported to a concentration camp. Colonel-General Vitéz Gábor Faragho and Colonel-General Vitéz Béla Miklós of Dálnok joined the Soviet forces after the failed attempt of Horthy to make an armistice with the Allies. Lieutenant colonel Vitéz Oszkár Variházy fought against the Nazis during the siege of Budapest. Lieutenant-General Vitéz Szilárd Bakay was deported to a Nazi concentration camp for his activity during Horthy's armistice attempt on 16 October.(Gábor Baross, Hungary and Hitler, pp 78–82 www.hungarianhistory.com)
In fact "a small number of wealthy Jews allied themselves with the order as well” - though without being members of the Order themselves, as Jews had been officially excluded from being able to join the Order by the 1938 racial laws.
Under the Armistice signed between the Allies and the Provisional National Government of Hungary (Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány), which was set up in the liberated part of Hungary from the fall of the Nazis until 1945, the Government undertook "to dissolve immediately all pro-Hitler or other fascist political, military, para-military and other organizations on Hungarian territory conducting propaganda hostile to the United Nations and not to tolerate the existence of such organizations in future." The Order's governing National Council of Vitéz was placed listed as such an organization by Prime Ministerial Edict no. 1945/529. Paragraph 1, §(1) of the Statute IV of 1947 regarding the abolition of certain titles and ranks declares annulment of the Hungarian aristocratic and noble ranks, and paragraph 3 §(1) specifically forbids the use of the "vitéz" title.
The United States Department of State included this Order of Vitéz as an institution "under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany," along with the ruling Arrow Cross Party and other contemporaneous organizations.
Private associations in the postwar era
After World War II, veterans' groups, including members of the Vitéz Order appointed by Horthy, began working to re-establish the Order in exile. Today, there are several groups that claim the title of Vitéz, and the usage of the original badge (Vitézi Rend, Történelmi Vitézi Rend, Kárpát-medencei Vitézi Rend, 1956-os Vitézi Lovagrend Világszövetsége etc). All of them operate as private associations.
The most notable of them is the Historical Order of Vitéz. This was reestablished in 1953, by General vitéz Hugó Sónyi as an order of chivalry according to traditional statutes. Since 1983, this Vitéz Order has been awarded to individuals who have been defenders of Hungarian national interests and culture. The Captains General of this order have been:
- HIRH Field Marshal Archduke vitéz Archduke Joseph August of Austria (1959–62)
- Colonel General vitéz Ferenc Farkas de Kisbarnak (resigned at age 85)
- HIRH Archduke vitéz Archduke Josef Arpád of Austria (appointed 1977)
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The confidential directives stated: "Only Hungarian nationals can receive immovable, and only those Hungarian nationals who, during the occupation, manifested an impeccable behaviour." That is, members of the "vitéz" order, old landlords and persons whose estate was confiscated by the Czechoslovak authorities for one reason to the other.
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'State social and health institutions, churches, and organizations loyal to the government, such as the Order of Vitéz, received some of the land and property in exchange for a very small sum.' Citing László Csősz, 'Land Reforms and Race Protection: The Implementation of the Fourth Jewish Law,' in The Holocaust in Hungary Sixty Years Later in European Perspective (2005)
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