Delusion and Darkness
On the very edge of Hungary, right along the Austrian border stands the small village of Velem. There is a church high on a hill that can be seen from far away. The village is set amid the forested slopes of the Kőszeg Mountains.
This is a quintessentially romantic landscape. A wild, wooded, seductive charm surrounds the village. High above the village, on the top of St. Vid Hill a church can be seen, its steeple protruding above the treetops.
Aesthetically it lies somewhere between the mysterious and the magical, it gives off an air of mysticism.For those arriving in Hungary for the first time, it strikes a postcard perfect beginning. It invites the visitor to a more extensive exploration of the area.
That makes it all the more alarming to discover that Velem’s 20 thcentury history, much like the nation it is a part of it, is conflicted.
In such a beautiful landscape it is hard to believe that in the latter part of World War II, Velem was home to Hungary’s rump Nazi government, the Arrow Cross. With Budapest entirely surrounded by Soviet forces, the fascist leaders of the Arrow Cross decided to flee into the farthest western reaches of Hungary.
The Stirling Villa became the temporary seat of government from late December 1944 until early March 1945.The leader of the government was Ferenc Szálasi. He had much in common with many of history’s more famous despots.
Just as Napoleon was a Corsican who led France, Hitler an Austrian who led Germany and Stalin a Georgian who led the Soviet Union, Szálasi’s ethnicity was almost everything, but Hungarian. He was originally from Kassa, which had been on the frontiers of the former Kingdom of Hungary.
It had become part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. He had only one grandparent who was Hungarian and his father was of Armenian descent. He also had German, Slovak and Rusyn blood.
Yet Szálasi had risen to prominence by promoting an extreme form of nationalism intermixed with ethnic purity. Installed by the occupying Germans, Szálasi did the bidding of his masters, fomenting hatred against thousands of innocent people.
Even with the Soviet Army closing in, Szálasi continued his incendiary rhetoric. Standing in the Stirling Villa (now used as a conference center) one wonders what was going through his mind.
Exiled to the nation’s sparsely populated frontier, in a village of at most a couple of hundred people, Szálasi suspended disbelief for a few more months. Some of the last day’s Szálasi spent in Hungary as a free man were in this beautiful yet lonely outpost Did he scale the 582 meter St. Vid Hill to reflect on what was happening to him and his nation?
Did he beg repentance at the St. Vitus Church there?It is doubtful. More than likely he continued to delude himself into thinking that victory was still possible.
None of the magical spirit of this landscape would rub off on Szálasi, he was sinking into the ruins of a reality he had helped create.Finally, in March the game was up and he along with what was left of his government raced into Austria and eventually to Germany. He would be captured in Bavaria.
The next time Szálasi entered Hungary he was a prisoner. Placed on trial by the Soviets, he was expeditiously tried and convicted.In Budapest he was hanged. Photos show a body suspended, the head covered with cloth as onlookers stare curiously at the lifeless corpse dangling from the scaffold.
Velem seems light years away from this image. The lush forests that cover the magnificent uplands have nothing in common with such a scene. Today, the steeple of the church atop St. Vid Hill still reaches skyward, toward God. If this landscape cannot save a man, then there is only pity left for such a lost soul.
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